In this sixth and final interview with authors shortlisted for the 2019 HWA Crown Awards, Anna-Marie Crowhurst, shortlisted for the HWA Debut Crown, talks about the background to her novel, The Illumination of Ursula Flight. She also has some tips for other first-time writers.
The HWA Debut Crown celebrates new voices in historical fiction. Have you always been interested in history?
I wasn’t at school, because it seemed to be about farming and wars, which seemed DULL, so I didn’t even take history for GCSE. But I have always been a voracious, passionate reader. I hoovered up my local library’s collection of children’s historical-slash-fantasy fiction – I loved Jacqueline Wilson, Nina Beachcroft, Helen Cresswell, C.S Lewis and all of those slightly spooky books that were dramatised on kids TV in the 80s, like The Box of Delights, The Children of Green Knowe and Moondial. At the same time my mum loved classic, romantic, usually Tudor-based films – we’d watch Young Bess, Henry VIII and His Six Wives, Lady Jane and A Man For All Seasons.
So it seemed like history was all around me when I was growing up, in the fictional sense. I still find nothing gives me the sense of escapism and deep joy like a historical book or film. There is something so relaxing to me about escaping the cares of the modern world, and sinking into the past. And never has that been so true in these turbulent political times we live in.
How did the initial idea for The Illumination of Ursula Flight come about?
I’d been writing a completely different novel set in a completely different century for a couple of years that I couldn’t seem to finish – so I decided to do an MA Creative Writing at Bath Spa – I’m a journalist and I wanted structure and a deadline. During an exercise in a tutorial this vision of a teenage girl in a wood-panelled room came to me. I knew she had a rebellious and creative spirit that was restricted… I could just see her there, in her pale green dress, in the candlelight… Though I was trying to focus on the novel I already had three-quarters of, she kept popping up and making me write about her.
She was so compelling, I abandoned my other manuscript and wrote the story of Ursula Flight’s life and journey to becoming a writer as fast as I could get it down. In some ways her story is my story – constantly reading and writing… awful boyfriends… going to the city to seek adventure – only with added silk slippers, ringlets and lutes. Oh, and instead of Twitter, Ursula has a diary. And people don’t slide into her DMs, they send her pervy notes. I’m certain lots of female experiences are ephemeral.
The book is set in Restoration London and Berkshire. What attracted you to that particular period and place?
Not only is it quite a saucy, bosomy, licentious time in my mind, with filthy poets and raucus playwrights – it seemed to me to be such an exciting period for women in particular – and for the creative arts. In 1660 women were allowed to act on the English stage for the very first time. I wanted to write about a woman who was at the vanguard of that initial wave of women in theatre.
I’d loved Antonia Fraser’s life of King Charles II and The Weaker Vessel, and Restoration London by Liza Picard, and I’ve been indulging in Kathleen Winsor’s Forever Amber for years. Then I started getting interested in Aphra Behn – who is hilarious and witty and biting – and thought about all the women writers who haven’t been remembered by history as men are. Ursula’s story is my idea of how a woman in the late 17th century might come to be a writer.
In terms of place, Ursula’s family live where I grew up, in Binfield, in the (under-represented?) county of Berkshire, which was important in 17th-century court terms as it included royal hunting land, and was on the usual route to the castle at Windsor. I based Turvey Hall on Corsham Court – which is Bath Spa’s historic creative writing campus in Wiltshire. It was such a delight to study there, while gazing out of mullioned windows at Capability Brown landscapes, with peacocks singing in the background. Almost impossible not to write a historical book under those circumstances.
Is historical research a pleasure or a chore?
It’s a pleasure, but I don’t see my job as historical research-first. I’m not a historian and I don’t want to wallow in months of research at the cost of the characters and story. I like to read widely around an era – both non-fic and contemporary books or plays – go to museums and explore historic houses – and then see what sticks. I then write freely without much recourse to notes and xxxx-out any details that I need to check to come back to later.
I’ve become conscious that what makes a great historical novel is not proof of the amazing research you’ve done, it’s allowing the reader to forget that there was any research at all and lose themselves completely in the world. For me it’s getting the spirit and ambience of the age and characters right – and whether or not they ate blancmange or wore the colour orange is much less important. (They did eat blancmange and wear the colour orange in the 1680s and 90s, though).
Did your research for this book turn up anything unexpected?
I was surprised at how relatively free women were in the Restoration era, compared to other time periods. For the first time they could act and follow creative pursuits, they became writers and court painters and ran businesses, and in Charles II court, influenced politics (albeit through their position as mistresses). I also got really obsessed with all the mad food they ate in the late 17th century: stargazey pie and quaking pudding, honey wine and curd cakes, stewed carp and quince cream. All in one course, and on one plate. Mmm mmm mmm! (Maybe). (Not).
What was your path to publication?
I set myself the deadline of one year to both finish the book and complete my MA, as I couldn’t afford to take any longer off work (I dropped to working part time to do the masters). I had a crazy year of studying, writing, travelling between London and Wiltshire and working almost constantly seven days a week – it was a busy, but completely joyous time immersing myself in books books books! I wrote on my phone on the tube, on holiday, in bed… every spare minute.
Then I did the usual thing of using The Writers and Artists’ Yearbook and the internet to research, and emailing my chapters and pitch out to agents. Luckily I had five to choose from, and found a great agent in Hellie Ogden at Janklow & Nesbit. After an auction, I signed my publishing contract two months after I graduated. Huzzah!
The MA for me was really the essential factor in getting published. I had the guidance and support of some amazing novelist-teachers who are still friends – such as Tessa Hadley and Nathan Filer. I also connected with fellow students, whom I’m still in touch with – we still workshop each other’s stuff and support each other through Whatsapp. No one else understands the particular demands of authordom like my writer friends. I’d be lost without them.
What advice would you give someone starting work on a first novel?
- If it’s historical, don’t spend too long on research at the cost of the novel – it can really be a form of procrastination – the important thing is to get the story down.
- When writing, avoid the trap of proving you’ve researched with too much expositional detail, eg. describing every aspect of an outfit or building.
- Probably don’t write the true story of your grandmother or great aunt, because it might restrict your storytelling and creativity.
- Find a writing community to share work with – you want good constructive criticism to get better.
- Embrace criticism so that you can get better.
- Read widely and analyse what works – in terms of the writing, but also the whole package, pitch and cover, if you want to get published. Use every book you read as a learning opportunity.
- If you can, join a writing group or course, for that real-life contact. It will build your confidence in yourself as a novelist.
- Keep going. Don’t give up. Some days will be bad, but don’t let it put you off. Write to the end. Keep going.
What do you think the historical novelist can add to the study of the past?
Perhaps what we add is ways of interpreting facts, envisaging the real life people behind the artefacts and data, and drawing parallels that help us to understand the present through the prism of the past.
And finally, can you describe your book in five words?
Saucy, satirical, offbeat, feminist, joyous.