Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Interview with Deborah Swift

Deborah Swift has worked as a set and costume designer for film and TV, and later as a freelance lecturer in theatre arts. She says historical fiction was a natural choice for her as a writer because she has always enjoyed the research aspect of her work in theatre, not to mention the attraction of boned bodices and the excuse to visit old and interesting buildings! She lives in the glorious countryside close to the Lake District, home to the romantic poets Coleridge and Wordsworth, in a house which used to be an old school. I believe THE LADY’S SLIPPER is your debut novel, Deborah. Can you tell us what inspired you to write it?

I was inspired by the flower itself, the extraordinary orchid, the lady’s slipper, which at the time of writing was the rarest wildflower in Britain. A friend and I came across it by chance when we were out on a walk, being guarded by a man from Natural England. I’d never come across a flower with its own guard before! It is a very unusual-looking orchid, with a shoe-like central petal surrounded by more petals like twisted red ribbons. It looks unlike any of our other native species, and because it was so rare there was a sort of plant mafia - the Cypripedium Committee - set up to protect it. It piqued my interest, and research led me to discover it was also over-collected in the 17th century because it was used medicinally, and the seed of the novel was sown (if you’ll excuse the pun!).

I read about the novel on the blog http://historicalbellesandbeaus.blogspot.com/ and was intrigued as it was set in the Lake District where I lived for many years, and have used as a setting in many of my own books. How much is a sense of place important to you in your writing?

I spent many years designing scenery for the theatre, so a sense of atmosphere and accurate period architecture is very important to me. I don’t think of it as a backdrop, more like an interwoven texture to the plot and characters. In THE LADY’S SLIPPER I was able to indulge my love of the natural environment too as it is set in rural Westmorland, with its fells, lakes and rushing waterfalls, and I love the great outdoors.

What do you think most influences you as a writer?

I am an avid reader, so other writers have always inspired me. Not just novelists, but poets and playwrights too, particularly poets as their crafting of words needs to be meticulous. And I owe a big debt to the theatre where I worked as a designer for a large part of my life, so I tend to treat the book as a drama and think in terms of a three act structure. For me it was natural to think of writing period fiction as it allows me to continue the research which I enjoyed so much as a designer, and I am always very concerned with the visual elements of my storytelling.

I found the tribulations of the Quakers, and the historical detail and political intrigue in the book meticulously depicted, how did you set about your research? Is it a pleasure or a chore?

A pleasure, if not an obsession! I used libraries a lot, interviewed orchid experts and made visits to seventeenth century houses. Geoffrey Fisk’s house was based on Levens Hall in Cumbria. For certain aspects of my research, such as life on board a sailing ship, I made use of the expertise of the Maritime Museum, and I spent many days in the Quaker collection at Lancaster University reading old manuscripts and diaries by early Quakers. I sometimes like to sit in a real location to write - I wrote a scene in the Quaker Meeting House at Swarthmoor Hall, the actual home of George Fox, the founder of Quakerism. The main male character is a newly-converted Quaker and it really helped me to see it through his senses - the smell of oak panelling, the quality of light through the windows.

What is it about this particular period of history that makes you want to write about it?

It was a time of great upheaval. The Civil War was the only time when English people have taken up arms against themselves. So after it ended the country was still riven by religious and social divides, and I thought this period would give me great scope for conflict within the book. The natural order in England had been undermined by the fact that we no longer knew how to govern ourselves, did not know if we wanted King or Parliament, and I wanted this to be reflected in the individuals in the novel.

In some ways the orchid is a symbol which embodies our passion for the land, and represents our desire to own our territory. And I also thought it might be interesting if someone who is a sworn pacifist has to choose whether to take up arms to protect the woman he loves.

Your style of prose is quite emotive. I know that you are also a poet. How do you think this has affected your style of writing?

I hope it gives me more rigour when I’m choosing words, but I don’t want it to be too evident to my readers. It would be embarrassing if ‘poetic’ writing took people’s attention away from the story!

Alice is an intriguing character. I wasn’t terribly sympathetic of her at first, in view of what she did, but I warmed to her quite quickly. Did you plan her before you started the novel, or did she develop as you wrote?

I planned her a little, as I needed someone who cared about plants in more than one way for the plot to be believable. So I made her an artist, who is also the daughter of a plantsman. So she has both an artistic and botanical interest in the lady’s slipper which fuel her obsession. Because of the Civil War and personal tragedy she has lost all her family, so she is looking for something to protect and nurture, as well as craving love and affection for herself. Although of course she does not know this at the beginning of the book. She grew as I worked with her, and I found it fascinating to watch her develop through her experiences in the novel until at the end of the book she is much less reserved and much more open to love, and to what life brings.

You’ve said that you often work out in the field, as it were, but where is your favourite place to hideaway and write?

I have an office, which is just a desk surrounded by bookshelves, but it has a lovely view of the garden where I can see my two cats basking in the sun (when there is any, up here in the North.) But I am working all the time in my mind. I keep a pencil in the car because I often get ideas when I’m driving!

Do you have to juggle writing with the day job? What is your work schedule? 

Yes, I have a day job, or rather an evening job. I teach adult education classes in the evenings. So I write in the mornings, five days a week from about nine till about one. That includes quite a bit of fiddling on Twitter and Facebook, things that seem to be a big part of a writer’s remit these days. But it’s quite flexible, so I can juggle the time a bit if I’m researching for example, to fit in with people I might be interviewing.

How much of the story do you plan in advance? Do you plot, or just dive in? No, I just dive in.

When I wrote my second one THE GILDED LILY, I got scared at the thought of producing a book to a schedule, and thought I’d better try plotting to make sure I hit the publisher’s deadline. But in the end the characters developed in other unexpected ways, and I kept finding more interesting sidetracks and ended up jettisoning the original plot! So now I recognise I’m a "seat of the pants" writer, and for me that’s a large part of the excitement , not knowing exactly what will happen. Though I always have a last scene in mind that I set my sat nav towards.

Which authors have most influenced your work? And which do you choose to read for pleasure? 

I think everything I read influences my writing directly or indirectly. Some of my favourite historical writers are Rose Tremain, Mary Renault, Barbara Ewing, CJ Sansom. And I love historical blockbusters such as Ken Follett’s "Pillars of the Earth" and Robyn Young’s "Brethren". For pleasure I’d head to the Richard and Judy shelf in the local bookshop. Some people knock their choices, but I’m a fan because I’ve found some great reads from their lists.

What is the hardest part of the writing process for you?

When I’m about a third of the way through, and suddenly have a crisis of confidence! Was this a good idea? Maybe I should start again with different characters, a different idea... But I’ve found that if I press through that part then I can soon regain enthusiasm for my plot and concept. I also find that the novel seems to sprawl for quite a while and I need to spend time afterwards drawing all the threads together and cutting unwanted material.

I find promoting books an increasingly time consuming activity. How do you go about it, and what tips can you offer other writers? 

I am not a natural marketing type, but I recognise that it has to be done if people are going to get to hear of my books, so I do a lot on-line. Something I have learnt is to not join too many things, because you have more impact if you are truly present, even on-line. And I believe personal recommendation is still the best way to sell books. I am still feeling my way with new technologies like Twitter, but you can follow me @swiftstory to find out what I’m up to and what I had for lunch. I’m currently attempting to make a book trailer. I got my daughter and her friends dressed up in period costume and we had a day "on location" which was great fun and thank goodness the rain held off. If the video turns out to be awful, at least we had a good day out! I sometimes think my attempts at marketing are a little amateur, but hey, you have to start somewhere! I blog about my writing life at http://www.deborahswift.blogspot.com, and have a site to promote historical fiction at http://www.royaltyfreefictionary.blogspot.com

Tell us about your latest book and how you got the idea for it. 

The book which will be out next is called THE GILDED LILY and tells the story of Ella who is a minor character in THE LADY’S SLIPPER. She cheekily demanded her own book. Ella is a character full of contradictions, part bully, part loving, ambitious and brazen, but underneath not nearly as sure of herself as she looks. Just the sort of character that can sustain the reader’s interest, especially when teamed with her timid but stubborn sister, Sadie. THE GILDED LILY will come out in September 2012.

Can you reveal something of your work in progress? 

The one I’m working on right now is a stand-alone historical adventure/romance set in Seville. I’ve just come back from there after a wonderful time getting to know the city. After the wet of Westmorland and frosty London in the other two books, I felt like I needed a bit of sunshine and a change to an earlier time period. Historical fiction is time-consuming to write so I’m only at first draft stage with that and wary of telling you too much, except to say I’m loving it and hope it’s the best yet.

You can find out more about Deborah's books at her website http://www.deborahswift.co.uk. Her contact details are there and if you’ve read THE LADY’S SLIPPER she’d love to hear from you.

Interviews on the RNA Blog are conducted by Freda Lightfoot and Kate Jackson. If you would like an interview, please contact me at: mailto:freda@fredalightfoot.co.uk


Debra Brown said...

Thanks, I always love reading about your research methods. It puts me there, in a sense, and in a limited way. Your theater career is interesting, too. I was in a play, the leading lady, and it was the absolute most fun of my entire life. I think everyone should be involved in theater for at least a short time to find out how wonderful it is backstage.

Noelene said...

Deborah, I have read The Lady's Slipper and really enjoyed it. Interesting premise and I learnt a lot. We were in Spain for 2 weeks earlier this year and loved Seville best of all, so am looking forward to your next book set there.

Deborah Swift said...

Hello Debbie, I bet it was hard work being the leading lady - a lot of responsibility!

And Noelene, thank you for your lovely comments about The Lady's Slipper. I loved Seville too - fortunately I have a great excuse to go back there! Definitely need to do a lot more research to get into the heart of Spanish traditions...
Such a layering of different cultures there, and so much to see.