Dangerous Crossings, shortlisted for the HWA Endeavour Ink Gold Crown Award, is the first foray into historical mystery for Rachel Rhys, who also writes psychological thrillers as Tammy Cohen and contemporary drama as Tamar Cohen. We caught up with her to talk about moving into historical fiction, terrible first drafts and the time Napoleon went ghost-hunting!
You have a successful career writing crime and psychological thrillers and Dangerous Crossing is your first foray into historical mystery – why the move?
I love writing contemporary psychological thrillers, but after eight in six years, I really, really needed a break. I was starting to feel in danger of writing to a formula and frankly, had engineered enough shocking twists to last me a lifetime. My agent, Felicity, suggested I try writing something historical and I excitedly went away and wrote various novel openings from different eras – Tudor wenches, gothic governesses – with varying degrees of colossal failure. It wasn’t until I came across the memoir that inspired Dangerous Crossing that I found my historical voice.
How did the initial idea for Dangerous Crossing come about?
I was at my mum’s house nosing around in her things when I came across a curious ring-bound notebook with a laminated cover. It turned out to be an account written by a friend of my mum’s who’d died some years before of a voyage she’d made as a young woman in 1938, travelling from London to Sydney under the Assisted Passage Scheme to go into Domestic Service. She’d typed it up and photocopied it to hand out to friends and family. In this memoir she detailed everything about the crossing, from what the passengers wore and ate to all the exotic locations they visited along the way and the different class divisions on board. There was also, naturally, much talk of war and whether or not it would materialise, especially as the journey progressed through European waters and the ship picked up Jews from Austria and Germany, already fleeing from the Nazis. I read this fascinating document with a growing sense of excitement, immediately convinced it would make the most compelling backdrop for a historical novel. A young woman embarking on the adventure of a lifetime mixing for the first time in her life with all these diverse types. Everyone running away from something, no one able to escape, on the very eve of war. What if something terrible happened on board that ship? I sat down and wrote the prologue in which a woman is led off a ship in handcuffs at Sydney Docks in September 1939 and as soon as I’d done that I knew I had to write the rest of the book, just to find out who this woman was and what she’d done.
Historical research: a pleasure or a chore?
Both. I love the immersive research you do before you write a word. For example, my second Rachel Rhys book is set on the French Riviera in 1949 and I spent months reading novels and non fiction books set in that region, finding out about all the writers and artists who’d lived there over the years – Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Picasso – working out exactly when I wanted to set my own book, and looking at endless old cine footage from the 1940s and 1950s. But once I actually start writing, I do find it frustrating to have to constantly break off to check small details or to question whether such and such character would have used this particular word at that particular moment in time.
Did your research for this book turn up anything unexpected?
It’s so easy to disappear down rabbit holes while researching. You start off looking for a specific answer to a specific question, but in searching for it, you come across something unrelated, or so loosely related as to be all but irrelevant, but so interesting you can’t but follow the thread, emerging hours later unable to work out where the day has gone. For instance, a group of passengers in Dangerous Crossing, make an overnight trip to Cairo while the ship is travelling down the Suez Canal, disembarking at Port Said at the opening of the canal, and rejoining the others at Suez, at its foot. The highlight of the trip is a visit to the Pyramids. Incredibly I found footage of the Pyramids filmed in 1939, when my novel is set, showing visitors climbing up the outside of the Great Pyramid. I also got very side-tracked by accounts of various people who’d spent a night alone inside the Pyramid and reported all manner of supernatural goings-on. This included Napoleon Bonaparte who supposedly insisted on being left alone inside the King’s Chamber, emerging at dawn, pale and shaken and refusing to discuss what had transpired inside, insisting no one would believe him.
Antonia Senior, Chair of judges said, ‘Our shortlisted writers, although very different in subject and style, all share a talent for making the past holler to the present.’ Were you conscious of any modern day parallels when writing the book?
When you’re writing a book, you’re first and foremost telling a story that you hope will engage a reader’s interest. There may well be writers of historical fiction who are capable of doing that while simultaneously ensuring the narrative doubles as a clever allegory of modern times, but I’m not one of them. But of course, subconsciously, we’re all telling our stories of the past through the prism of the present, shaped by our own experiences and perceptions. While I was writing Dangerous Crossing I was fully immersed in Lily Shepherd’s world, trying to think like a young woman from that class and that era, but re-reading it now I can see so many nods to the present day. Many of the passengers Lily meets are fleeing either poverty or oppression in search of a better life, just like the refugees we see on the news every day, crammed into boats, dreaming of some kind of secure future. And while we might all wish to believe that the class system that divided British society in the 1930s is a historical anachronism, we only have to look at the current domination of privately educated people in top level jobs to see that’s far from the case.
Can you tell us a bit about your writing routine, if you have one?
When my kids were younger I had an iron-clad routine that fitted in around school pick-up and drop-off, and was terribly productive. But now they’re grown and I have all the time in the world, my routine has gone completely to pot. I get up, walk the dog, lose long hours down the worm-hole of Twitter and Facebook, eat my body-weight in toast, read other people’s books and fall into an abyss of self doubt which makes writing my own an impossibility. In fact, if it wasn’t for deadlines I wouldn’t get anything done at all. Nothing focuses the mind like knowing you have to have ninety thousand words written in three months’ time and you’re still trying to work out how the damn thing starts.
What advice would you give someone starting work on a first novel?
Write, even if you’re convinced it’s worthless drivel (you’d be surprised how many successful writers consider their first drafts worthless drivel). And don’t show your first draft to anyone until it’s finished unless you want to end up paralysed by conflicting advice.
Which recent novels, historical or otherwise, would be on your personal shortlist?
The Essex Serpent (yes, I know it’s already on the shortlist, but it’s so deserving), the new Elizabeth Strout (I think she’s a genius), The Fact of a Body (such a clever blurring of fact and fiction, reportage and autobiography), Good Me Bad Me (viscerally dark).
What do you think the historical novelist can add to the study of the past?
As a newbie historical novelist, I’m still very much feeling my way, but the best historical writers, like Hilary Mantel, make the past breathe and sweat and bleed and bring it so to life that the characters aren’t rooted in a particular place or era, but people we might know and recognise in real life. Your neighbour, your teacher, that creepy guy sitting opposite you in the train carriage. Fashions may change, and conventions and scenery and laws and morality even, but human nature – desire, fear, jealousy, rage. That stays constant. The best historical fiction doesn’t capture a moment in a glass bottle to study from a distance, it smashes it right open so we can pick it up and rub it between our fingers and smell it and know it.
What’s next? What are you working on now?
I’m writing the second Rachel Rhys novel which is set on the French Riviera just after the war and has involved several gruelling trips to the South of France. It’s a hard job etc. etc.
And finally, just for fun, can you describe your book in five words?
SECRETS, ADVENTURE, COCKTAILS, DECEIT and lots and lots of SEA.
Rachel Rhys has published four novels as Tamar Cohen and four as Tammy Cohen. She was a journalist for twenty years before turning to fiction. Dangerous Crossings is her first historical novel. It was a Richard and Judy Book Club pick and is shortlisted for the HWA Endeavour Ink Gold Crown Award