Friday, February 3, 2012

Interview with Victoria Lamb

As a lover of historical novels I am delighted today to welcome Victoria Lamb to the RNA Blog. Daughter of the prolific novelist Charlotte Lamb, Victoria lives in Warwickshire – also known as Shakespeare Country – only twenty minutes from Kenilworth Castle where The Queen's Secret is set. She is presently working on her new novel featuring Lucy Morgan. I should think writing is in your blood, Victoria, tell us how you came by the idea to write this book.

I studied English at Oxford University as a mature undergraduate - though sadly decided to leave after my mother died - and absolutely fell in love with Elizabethan and Jacobean playwrights. Shakespeare had always been a favourite of mine, and indeed my mother - the prolific novelist Charlotte Lamb - had written her own account of Shakespeare and his 'Dark Lady', casting her as Mary Fytton. So when I began to think about writing an historical novel, it was an obvious choice to start with this mysterious 'Dark Lady' and imagine who she might have been and what her life was like before she met Shakespeare.

I chose a lady-in-waiting at Elizabeth's court called Lucy Morgan, about whom we know very little except that she has been linked by a few historians to another Lucy in late Tudor London, known as 'Black Luce'. Being so close geographically to Kenilworth Castle, I've always been fascinated by descriptions of Queen Elizabeth's visit there in 1575 and the lavish festivities laid on for her by the Earl of Leicester.

Many believe that the young Will Shakespeare, then a schoolboy of eleven years old, visited the castle and witnessed some of these spectacular events. This gave me the idea for The Queen's Secret, where I would introduce Lucy Morgan to the young Shakespeare against a backdrop of spectacle and political intrigue, forever fixing her in his imagination as someone exotic and dangerous.

Tudor history is popular right now. What is it about this particular period that makes you want to write about it? 

Tudor history is peculiarly rich in important events and turning-points in world history against which to set a novel. To add to this political gravitas, I love describing all those lavish textiles, set-piece banquets and spectacular visuals of the Tudor age against a flowering of new understanding within science and the humanities. This combination makes it a very exciting period of history to explore as a writer. The Tudor court, in particular, is a fraught and narrow society living under intense scrutiny and in constant fear of punishment and death - but with huge rewards if they pick the right side. In such an atmosphere, paranoia and spy networks flourish and plots are rife, providing perfect material for the kind of novel I wished to write.

Can you work anywhere, or do you have a favourite place to hideaway and write? 

Up until last year, I always worked at a desk in a corner of the quietest room I could find, occasionally going out to write in a cafe. Last year I decided to invest in an office in town, which has been very successful and increased my productivity, perhaps because it's a place I associate with 'work' and nothing else. I like to listen to music as I write, which shuts out external noise and helps to focus my mind. Avoiding the lure of social networking is probably the main factor these days in how much I manage to write when sitting down in the mornings!

Many historicals these days are written in the first person, but this has limitations. What point of view do you most enjoy writing: first or third? Can you say why that is? 

I've got two novels out this year: The Queen's Secret - written in third person - and Witchstruck for young adults - written in first person. It's hard to say which I enjoyed writing most, as they were both right for that individual book. Third person allowed me to have multiple narrative viewpoints in The Queen's Secret without that tricky - and often bewildering - ploy of heading each chapter with the appropriate name and hoping the reader can keep up with multiple first person narratives. Third person can also help to create an 'epic' feel to a narrative if required, even a broader sense of historical drama. In WITCHSTRUCK I needed the reader to identify closely with the young heroine from page one, so the intimacy of first person narrative was an obvious choice. Indeed, I couldn't imagine either book being written any other way.

We all know that writing a long novel is a marathon, which do you find the hardest part to write, and how do you cope when the going gets tough?

I tend to get bogged down just after the middle of a book, before the end is in sight. That's always a weary period for me, especially in a book over 100,000 words long, when I can't imagine finishing the thing and wish I'd never started. At that point, I don't dare stop - stopping can be fatal! - but push on and try to cut my writing into smaller chunks. Instead of telling myself 'Finish this chapter!', I'll set an easier goal, such as 'Just another 1000 words,' or even just a page or a lowly paragraph if things are really tough. I don't look ahead through the long, lonely wastes to the 30,000 I still have to write. That's too dispiriting. Instead, I set small goals and reward myself when I achieve them. Novels are written one page at a time, and though it can be hard to remember that when you feel blocked, if you can just write one page, you're still moving forward.

What I love most about historicals is when they involve real historical figures, what particular difficulties did you found in writing about these? 

When I first started writing about Lucy Morgan, I felt quite anxious about also having real historical figures as point of view characters, especially well-known ones like Elizabeth I and William Shakespeare. In the end I decided to write their characters as I saw them myself, not as anyone else had done before me. This freed me up considerably and I began to enjoy imagining how they would react in difficult or intimate situations, rather than being afraid in case I got it 'wrong'. It did mean having to stop and occasionally mark scenes as needing 'more research', but I tried to be as realistic as possible with my characters within those parameters, and not tie them down to stereotypes.

Can you remember which craft tip, perhaps from your mother, helped you the most when you were starting out? 

I grew up in a family of writers, so craft tips were part of the fabric of everyday life. I can't recall any one piece of advice that struck me more than any other, though it was obvious that constant hard work was expected of a successful writer. My mother never read my work (which was a relief, frankly) though when I was about twelve, she did send one of my manuscripts to her then agent, Caradoc King, who sent it back, very gently saying there were 'too many characters'. (About thirty in the first chapter, I seem to recall.)

'Just finish the damn thing!' was perhaps the best tip I ever received on a personal level, given to me by a television writer on an Arvon course when I candidly explained that I had an agent interested in my debut novel but didn't seem able to finish writing it. He was quite rightly outraged by this lazy attitude and I was chastened into finishing it. It was later published by Sceptre under my maiden name of Jane Holland.

In what way has the RNA helped you or your career?

Becoming a member of the RNA has helped my new career as an historical novelist more than any other single factor. Not only did it remind me of what I could do as a writer, but somehow had forgotten in the chaos of daily life, but it also gave me some vital tools on the road back into novel-writing. The friendship, advice and general support from other members have been invaluable, both before The Queen's Secret was written and now as I prepare to launch it.

Much of a writers time has to be spent on social networking. Which are your favourite places to promote your books?

Twitter and Facebook are top places for me to promote, with Twitter increasingly having the edge. Yes, they consume too much writing time, but without a growing readership, writing is pointless. Besides, Twitter is a great place to play and get inspired as well as promote. That's what I tell myself, anyway.

You have chosen to write this book under a pseudonym? Why was that, and what are the pros and cons? 

Since I am fairly well-known on the British poetry scene as Jane Holland, it seemed logical to split away from that persona by using a pseudonym. In my particular case, being the daughter of a well-known novelist who also wrote under a pseudonym, it made sense to take her pen-name 'Lamb' and combine it with one of my own middle names to produce 'Victoria Lamb'. This has also served as a tribute to a woman whose hard work and prolificity has enormously influenced my own approach to writing. The drawback to using a new name, of course, is not feeling able to point in my biog to my previous history as a writer. But it does provide an excellent opportunity to start afresh in a new career as 'Victoria Lamb'.

Tell us about the thrill of that call and what you hope to write next?

By a happy coincidence, I first heard that THE QUEEN'S SECRET had been sold to Transworld on the evening of the RNA Winter Party in 2010, which also happened to fall on my birthday that year. As you can imagine, everyone at the party was very excited. It was my most memorable birthday present ever!

In July this year, my Young Adult historical novel WITCHSTRUCK will also be published, by Random House Children's Books. That's a paranormal romance, the first in a series about a young Tudor witch. I start work on the sequel to Witchstruck this month. So, a busy year ahead!

That was fascinating Victoria, thank you so much for sparing the time to share your experiences with us. I’m sure many will be inspired by your story. To find out more about Victoria Lamb and her books, you'll find her here:

Author's Place page for Victoria Lamb:

Victoria Lamb's writing blog:

Victoria Lamb
Bantam Books
(February 16th 2012)

July 1575 Elizabeth I, Queen of England, arrives at Kenilworth Castle amid pomp, fanfare and a wealth of lavish festivities, laid on by the Earl of Leicester. The hopeful Earl knows this is his very last chance to persuade the Queen to marry him. But despite his attachment to the Queen and his driving ambition to be her King, Leicester is unable to resist the seductive wiles of Lettice, wife of the Earl of Essex. And soon, whispers of their relationship start spreading through the court. 

Enraged by the adulterous lovers growing intimacy, Elizabeth employs Lucy Morgan, a young black singer and court entertainer, to spy on the couple. But Lucy, who was raised by a spy in London, uncovers far more than she bargains for. For someone at Kenilworth that summer is plotting to kill the queen. No longer able to tell friend from foe, it is soon not only the queen who is in mortal danger - but Lucy herself. 

The Queen's Secret in hardback on Amazon UK:

Interviews on the RNA Blog are for RNA members, although we do occasionally take guests. If you are interested in an interview, please contact me:


Dizzy C said...

I came across your novel via Twitter. So glad that authors do tweet. I find it interesting to know how their latest WIP is coming along.

I am looking forward to The Queen's Secret. On my wishlist :)


Joanna Cannon said...

Wonderful interview and so fascinating. Thank you both so much!

Victoria Lamb said...

Thanks, Dizzy! I started tweeting because I discovered that Katie Fforde was on Twitter, and reading her tweets was just so fascinating ... it's a great way of starting dialogues between readers and writers.

Hey Joanna, thanks. Yes, I've had an odd life and an even odder upbringing, coming from a whole family of writers, but the good thing is how that feeds back into my writing.

Nell Dixon said...

One of Mr Nell's ancestors was Lady in waiting to Elizabeth I

Debs Carr said...

Thanks for the interesting interview.

I'm looking forward to reading The Queen's Secret, it sounds fascinating.

Susan Bergen said...

That was particularly interesting for me as I, too, write both Historical and Young Adult Romance. When I have both going at once, it can be a real battle regarding which to devote time to, on any given day.

Beth Elliott said...

I love that you tackle real people and put them into your stories. your books sound most intriguing and i look forward to reading 'The Queen's Secret'.

Victoria Lamb said...

Nell, that's fascinating. I wish my family tree could be traced that far back.

Thanks Debs and Beth, I hope you enjoy the book. Not long now!

Susan, I know what you mean. They are very different in terms of readership and market, aren't they? I imagine life will become interesting once my YA is also out in July!

The Queen's Secret isn't strictly a romance, of course, as most of the POV characters are real historical characters, which I believe isn't considered "Romance" per se. But it certainly has strong romantic elements. :)

Rosemary Gemmell said...

Wonderful interview and so interesting - I like music in the background too and I love the Tudor period. My daughter, Victoria, also writes so we have lots of writerly discussion!