Historia talks to Louise Brown, author of the HWA Goldsboro Debut Crown shortlisted novel, Eden Gardens.
The HWA Goldsboro Debut Crown celebrates new voices in historical fiction. Have you always been interested in history?
I can say with certainty that I’ve been interested in history since I was nine years old. In 1972, I was mesmerised by Blue Peter’s coverage of the Tutankhamun exhibition in London, and, in the same year, I was given a ‘Children’s History of the World’ for my birthday. I’ve been hooked ever since.
Nine years later, I began a degree in medieval and modern history at the University of Birmingham, and, after that, I taught Asian studies and sociology in the same institution. Whatever subject I’ve researched and taught, I’ve always made a big effort to explore the historical background.
How did the initial idea for Eden Gardens come about?
For several years, I studied Heera Mandi, the traditional red light district in Lahore. This involved me staying in the brothel quarter with courtesans whose families had been in the trade for generations. Many of the women claimed a long and glorious pedigree. Their ancestors, they said, were accomplished courtesans in the Mughal courts.
Inevitably, this led me to the history of prostitution in South Asia, and British regulation of the sex trade during colonial rule. This research threw up some fascinating facts, such as the decision by the Calcutta authorities in 1902 to ban white barmaids because of the damage their presence could do to British prestige. From here it was only a small jump to begin thinking about what it would have been like to be a ‘fallen’ white woman in colonial India.
The book explores the last days of the British Raj in 1940s India. What was it that attracted you to that period?
The twilight of British rule in India was a time when the hypocrisies and heavy hand of imperialism were laid bare. There was no hiding from reality behind a veneer of colonial decorum, and the terrible upheavals gave me a background against which to explore the things I was most interested in – particularly issues of class, race and gender.
I’m also fascinated by the 1930s and 1940s, in general. They are decades that don’t seem so very far away from our own time: they are identifiably of the modern world; and I remember my own grandparents talking about the 1930s of their youth. And, yet, this era is so remote it also feels alien to me. When I read memoirs from the period, I rarely fail to be shocked by how much attitudes have changed.
You’ve travelled extensively in India and Pakistan. How important do you think that real life experience was to writing the book?
I’ve been incredibly fortunate that my work and family circumstances over the last twenty five years have involved a lot of travel, and this has fed directly into my writing. I probably wouldn’t have written Eden Gardens if I hadn’t stayed in that Lahori brothel, and hadn’t visited Sonagachi, the vast, red light district in Kolkata. It might not even have occurred to me to write it. And if I had written the novel without having the real life experience of places like Kolkata, it would have been a different kind of book.
That’s not to say, however, that it is always essential to visit the places we are writing about. Kolkata in 2016 is very different from 1940s Calcutta. Some things are the same: no doubt the weather is as hot in the summer and as muggy in the rains, and, in the centre of the city, many of the old buildings are still standing. But what you really need if you’re writing about India – or anywhere – eighty years ago, is a leap of the imagination.
Did you watch the Channel 4 series Indian Summers? If so, what did you make of it?
I confess, I only watched three episodes of the first series so I’m not perhaps the best person to comment on it, and I will, when I have the time, get round to watching the whole of series one. From what I saw, though, its portrayal of British India is not one I recognise. The British in India were obsessed by gradations of class and official status. Elites had their own exclusive clubs that practiced a haughty disdain for those whites lower on the social ladder. Although behaviours in the hill stations were more relaxed, the idea that the British in India all got together for a fun knees-up in a club in Simla is far-fetched. Of course, the show is entertainment, and needs to be seen that way, but I’m a bit uneasy that some viewers may get a very different picture of the British Raj than the one I believe to be true.
You have a background in academia and have published several works of non-fiction. What were the challenges of writing a novel in comparison?
For me, it’s been much harder to write fiction than non-fiction. When I’m writing fiction, I often think about what ‘really happened,’ and this can be a negative thing because it brings the narrative flow to an abrupt halt. I have to keep reminding myself that I’m writing a story of the imagination set in a particular place and time; I’m not writing history.
I find writing non-fiction easier because I can deal in ‘facts’ that can be ordered and then turned into something analytical and, I hope, coherent. On the other hand, in my experience, writing fiction is more of a challenge because it requires both an intellectual understanding of place, time and character, and yet demands a different type of consciousness during the writing process. It’s almost as if I have to switch off the analytical voice in my head in order to be creative. This sounds a bit odd, and probably is odd. All I can say at this stage is that it’s something I’m working on, and I haven’t yet got the process fine-tuned! That said, the satisfactions of writing fiction outweigh writing non-fiction. I like the scope and freedom to create characters in believable places, and to explore historical and social themes in ways that are impossible in non-fiction.
What was your path to publication?
It was long and tortuous. I’ve had several non-fiction titles published over a period of twenty years, and was extremely fortunate in that I had a wonderful agent, Caradoc King, who was very supportive of my efforts to produce fiction, though he will also tell you that the path to publication was difficult. My early drafts of Eden Gardens were rejected by publishers for a multitude of reasons, and it took a brave editor, Imogen Taylor at Headline, to finally agree to publish it. There were many times when I thought it would never find a home.
What advice would you give someone starting work on a first novel?
Be prepared to write the book, and then redraft it, perhaps many times. Also, listen to the right advice. Family and friends will always tell you your work is wonderful because they almost certainly think it is – that is why they are your family and friends. Be prepared to listen to less complimentary criticisms from agents and publishers. You might not like what they say but they will give you a fresh perspective. I know I can get very bogged down with my own little obsessions and favourite characters, and, in retrospect, the criticisms that stung the most were probably the ones that were most valuable.
Do you have any favourite historical writers?
I love Andrea Levy’s historical fiction. Small Island and The Long Song are important and beautifully written. I like the way she writes stories that deal with big historical and social issues, and how she peoples her books with characters we care about.
And what are you reading right now?
Simon Mawer’s Tightrope. I’m on page 9, and it’s started well.
What’s next? What are you working on now?
Last week I sent my publisher the final draft of a book set in the Himalayas in the 1930s. Next, I’ll be working on a novel set in Grenada and London in the 1950s, and, after that, one about migration from Scotland in the nineteenth century. Both Grenada and the Hebrides are close to my heart and I can’t wait to begin writing.
Louise Brown has lived and worked in Asia, and taught at the University of Birmingham for almost twenty years. She lives in Birmingham and has three grown-up children.