Elizabeth Fremantle: Tea, Toast and Not Losing Your Head

CatchingTheCometFinalWelcome to Catching the Comet’s Tail, a series of interviews with writers, artists and musicians discussing creativity and their creative process. To launch the series, I am delighted to welcome English author Elizabeth Fremantle. Her first novel, Queen’s Gambit, based on the life of Henry VIII’s sixth wife Katherine Parr,  had me gripped from the first page until the last. I happen to know that, not only is she a gifted writer, she is also a demon at Scrabble. 

Elizabeth on defining creativity and the creative process…

Elizabeth Fremantle

Author Elizabeth Fremantle

“I am pragmatic about creativity. I am not of the view, for example, that I am the catalyst for some mysterious alchemical process. For me writing (and I’m talking here about the production of extended pieces of fiction) is more craft than art; it is something you teach yourself to do and it improves with practice. Certainly there are character traits that suggest a propensity for the craft, all rather dull, I’m afraid: discipline, a desire for solitude, swottiness and the ability to consume vast quantities of tea and toast, because when you are on a roll the last thing you want to do is come over all Nigella. No amount of talent can compensate for hard work but it is true that some people have an extra something that just makes them better than everyone else (not me, I might add) but even those people have to work hard. If I have a muse at all, it is the accumulated knowledge from all the books I have ever read and resides in an unwieldy and unreliably accessed conglomeration in my head.”

Was creativity encouraged in you as a child and who were your early inspirations?

“In my family ‘creative’ was what you were when you were not ‘academic’ and it meant that your education didn’t really matter; I was not considered ‘academic’. Reading was my refuge from an eccentric family and an effective mask for my social inadequacy. I read anything I could get my hands on from Jean Plaidy to Somerset Maugham, via Gerald Durrell and Agatha Christie. Often when I finished books I would start them all over again immediately. The only thing I ever wanted to become was a writer because I saw it as a way to create worlds for people to inhabit, who felt they didn’t fit in the actual world; but not being ‘academic’ made me believe it would never be possible. In my thirties I thought ‘sod it,’ and went to university. It turned out I was ‘academic’!”

How long did it take to write Queen’s Gambit and can you recall the first spark of inspiration? 

“I had written a number of novels, none of which had found a publisher and was beginning to think that perhaps I didn’t have what it takes to be a novelist. I was writing intense, writerly stories about young, messed-up posh girls, despite knowing that there was no market for such things. It was a colleague, a literary scout for whom I worked, who suggested I think about who I was writing for. It occurred to me only then to think of writing the kind of books I have always most enjoyed reading rather than the kind I thought I ought to write. I was intrigued by Katherine Parr because she was the wife everyone thought was rather dull and yet she was the one who survived. The more I researched her the more I realized that she had been miscast by history and I felt compelled to explore her story in fiction. Once I started, I was on a mission; it took me about eighteen months and I did really create the book I set out to write, which is actually more difficult than it sounds. I don’t know if you ever know that a novel is finished; in my case I simply have to decide that I must stop tinkering. There is not a passage I read in the ‘finished’ book that I don’t still want to change.”

Who, what or where always inspires you?

“My inspiration is most usually derived from reading but sometimes I will wander round an old building or look at a view or a portrait and the ideas begin to pop into my head. For example I was at a wedding the other day in Richmond Park and, driving through the deer park to get there, my mind started firing off. Once we were there I was mesmerized by the view from the back of the building, a landscape blurred by rain that I imagined had changed little in five hundred years. It is at moments like that when my characters begin to make themselves heard. Sometimes it flows and sometimes it doesn’t, there is no rhyme or reason to it.

I don’t believe in writers’ block. I have good days and bad but it’s just a job and the world would come to a halt if everyone else decided that they couldn’t do their job because they weren’t ‘feeling it’. I did say I was a pragmatist.

I write completely alone. It works better for me that way. I do, however belong to a writer’s group, the function of which is more moral than editorial support. It is necessarily a solitary business being a novelist, and sometimes it’s helpful to know people who are striving for similar ends. When you start banging on about your characters as if they are actually people in your life, they are less likely than your regular friends to glaze over, or think you’ve lost your marbles. I never, ever show my work to friends or family until it is ready for publication (which seems to annoy lots of people) but I have one or two trusted editors who give me notes on earlier drafts.”

Elizabeth's writing desk

Elizabeth’s writing desk

Where do you most like to be when you write and do you have a routine?

“I definitely work best at my desk with all my reference books around me and an internet connection to fact-check as I go along. I like silence and my dogs sleeping at my feet. I’m not very good at being portable. Comfort and warmth are key and the best thing about being a writer is that you can go to work in your pyjamas. I often think people are disappointed when they meet me because I used to be a Vogue fashion editor and I am never wearing the kind of thing they expect – its always a version of pyjamas really.

I’m absolutely a morning person but can, and do, work in any moment when the desire arises. I have been known to sit at my desk after a night out, having had one two many glasses of wine, and start thumping away at the keyboard – see above mention of wedding in Richmond – sometimes this produces diamonds but often drivel. When I am writing a new draft of something my rule is to write a minimum of 1,000 words a day. I am very strict about this and it suits me perfectly. I rarely sacrifice other things to write as there’s nothing I’d rather be doing.”

Please share a special object that connects with your writing.

“I bought this miniature (see picture below) to celebrate my first publishing deal and though I don’t invest it with any kind of talismanic powers, it does remind me of the joy I felt when I knew I was going to be earning my living doing the thing I love best. It is a Victorian copy of a Nicholas (who is in my next book) Hilliard original of Mary Queen of Scots by George Perfect Harding.”

Victorian copy of a Nicholas Hilliard original of Mary Queen of Scots by George Perfect Harding.

Victorian copy of a Nicholas Hilliard original of Mary Queen of Scots by George Perfect Harding.

Which other creative art form outside the one you are known for do you wish you could master?

“I’m hopeless at everything else though I did make a couple of rather good human beings once.”

How did becoming a parent affect your creativity?

“I really have absolutely no idea, though being a single mother has made me very time efficient.”

What are you working on next?

“Queen’s Gambit is the first of a Tudor trilogy. The second book takes place a few years later in time and though I don’t revisit any of my protagonist’s stories, there are a few minor characters who reappear. Queen Jane’s Shadow (out in May 2014) tells of the two younger sisters of the tragically executed Lady Jane Grey, one of whom, Lady Mary is a four foot hunchback. In the period physical deformity was regarded with great suspicion and often linked to the demonic in people’s minds, so Mary’s perspective on the court is coloured by this. Lady Catherine is the capricious beauty of the family and in love with the idea of love, something that eventually becomes her downfall. I intertwine their stories with that of a female court painter, Levina Teerlinc, who was remarkable in that she was earning her living from her work in a time when women rarely set foot beyond the domestic arena. It is all set against the backdrop of the turbulent and bloody Tudor succession.

The third novel, which I am working on now, focuses on the life of the ‘decadent’ Penelope Devereaux who scandalised the late Elizabethan court.”

You can find out more about Elizabeth on her website www.elizabethfremantle.com Twitter @LizFremantle Facebook Elizabeth Fremantle.

QGcoverQueen’s Gambit is available now in hardback, published by Michael Joseph.

Next week’s Catching the Comet’s Tail features Swedish contemporary artist Ylva Kunze talking creativity, kids and paintbrushes. Please follow #ctct on Twitter.

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Little Alchemies: BritMums Live 2012

Sleepy MummyLike most of the 500 mums and handful of dads attending the BritMums Live blogging conference this weekend, I found doing something out of the usual routine pretty damn special. As a consequence, I am experiencing a come-down of Glastonbury-esque proportions.

Perhaps the air at BritMums had a special quality to it, or maybe it is just the nature of any collective experience, but I suspect that few of us were unmoved or unchanged by the things we heard this weekend . I love how just the right blend of adrenaline,  inspiration, insight, empathy and empowerment can weave the kind of magic that can turn a simple conference room into a crucible. Alchemy at its finest. Mothers, among the most unheard, unexpressed, economically frustrated groups in the world, are beginning to respect themselves, shedding layers of guilt, self-depreciation and anxiety about ‘getting it wrong’. Revolutions are rarely this quiet, but in the shared tears and laughter of recognition during sessions and keynotes, BritMums Live felt like more than just a conference to me. It is a truly exciting time to be a writer, and a mother.

When I got home last night, it was to an empty house as the husband, the Teenage-Songbird and the 6-year-old Biscuit-Thief were still out. It was strange entering a completely darkened space, shutting the door on a noisy London street and climbing our stairs into unfamiliar silence. I was greeted by an abandoned pile of laundry in the shape of a lioness, desolate cups and plates piled high in the kitchen sink, a scrapyard of crockery. A window left ajar let in a cool, evening breeze and the blinds tapped out eerie morse code against the wall.

Our home, the heart of us; tapping and ticking, both empty and expectant.

The family cat circled my legs, demanding either food or love (I’m never sure which, and often get it wrong).  I was not yet ready for noise or light so I ran the hot tap to fill a bath, and  sat in the semi-darkness. I need more of this, I thought to myself. More solitary time. Not all the time. But just some of the time. Decompression. Each day is stretched to the edges of itself, there is always something more that needs to be done even though I am one of the lucky ones.  Even in sleep, time is spent unravelling complexities; my children, my marriage, my work, my life and what the hell it’s supposed to look like.

Lying in the warm bath, the silence meant that I could hear my heart for the first time in years. I had almost forgotten how it feels to actually BE HERE. Just, here.

How many of us skate above life, keeping going and keeping going, until all we have time to know is the surface of things?  The more I heard my heart, the more I knew I would have to let the thing happen,  the thing I always deny. The thing that is always in the corner of my mind, threatening  to climb aboard my raft and sink it. The thing is surrender; surrender to the imperfection of it all, to the inevitability that they will grow and they will leave, and that you can’t fix it all for them; surrender to the fact that it is joyous and also painful to mother.

Last night I surrendered to the fact that I am Just. Bloody. Knackered.

I allowed fifteen years worth of tiredness to pull me in, all syrup and quicksand, and on a current of restless dreams, I gave in to the Mother of all Sleeps.