Popular British historical fiction and mystery writer Valerie Anand brings past times and conundrums to life with fascinating characters, abundant detail and meticulous research in her twenty-one novels. In the U.S. she’s been known under her pen name Fiona Buckley for her historical mystery series set in the early years of Elizabeth I’s reign featuring Ursula Blanchard. Ms. Anand talked to me about her writing, love of history and feminist leanings from her South London home.
FAITH L. JUSTICE: Do you have writing in the blood ?
VALERIE ANAND: For me, writing is a natural function, like breathing. No one can do without breathing and I can’t do without writing. I don’t know why. It satisfies a very deep need. At the age of six, just after I had really learned to write, I suddenly announced that I was going to write books when I grew up and I actually started trying, then and there, on a piece of doubled over paper, with a red crayon. The best moments come when I am trying to transmit something subtle, or very deeply emotional and difficult to express, and feel, after much writing and re-writing that yes, that’s it, I’ve got it right at last, that’s it.
My father was a good teller of stories to small children and so was his aunt, my great aunt Clara. They both made up tales to amuse me. On the same side of the family, I had a cousin (now dead) who although a scientist, was also keen on books and wrote a couple of science fiction paperback novels.
Going back to my father; he loved words. He lost his parents when he was only 14 and after that was cared for by an uncle who, poor man, did his very best for his nephew, but not very successfully. He had apprenticed his own son to the drapery trade so he did the same for my dad. He gave his son and his ward exactly the same chance, in fact. But whereas his own son prospered, my father just loathed drapery. His love of words made him want to work with them – in any capacity. In the end he left the drapers, took to doing part-time proof-reading for national dailies and eventually became permanent. The drive to work with words must have been hugely powerful because he took that risk in the middle of the slump of the 1930s, and was very hard up – in fact unemployed – for a time. Because of that, his first engagement broke up. Luckily for me! He met and married my mother later on.
I was born in 1937, before the war. When war broke out and my father knew he would have to go into the forces, he gave up our rented home in Kent and left my mother and me with his Aunt Clara in Leatherhead, Surrey, just south of London. Dad went into the RAF where he was an Armourer, and we lived in my great aunt’s bungalow which was out of London, but still prone to a few bombs. I can remember being carried into the garden and seeing the glow in the sky, the night the City of London burned.
I can also remember the V1 doodlebugs very well indeed. We used to crouch in the hall of the bungalow, between the strongest walls of the house and away from windows, listening to the beastly things as they droned across the sky, and waiting for the engine to cut out. If it stopped overhead, we were all right, because momentum would carry it onwards. If it stopped before it got near, anything might happen. Fortunately, nothing ever did.
I grew up, didn’t go to university, joined a publishing house as a secretary but turned myself eventually into a trade journalist, specializing at first in business systems and equipment. Later on I became an industrial editor, and ran the house magazine first for Heals, the furniture retailer in Tottenham Court Road, and later for Matthew Hall, a big engineering group. They did everything from put the services into pharmaceutical plants and new office blocks to putting the topsides on oil platforms. It was very interesting.
FLJ: What drew you to historical fiction?
VA: You may be surprised to learn that America – well, Hollywood – had a lot to do with my decision to write historicals. I didn’t like history at school, mainly because it wasn’t well taught. At school, they gave the impression that everyone in history was not only dead but mummified and covered in cobwebs as well. But at the age of fifteen, I went with another girl to see MGM’s film of Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe – starring Elizabeth Taylor and Robert Taylor. And suddenly, there were all these medieval people who weren’t in the least mummified or cobwebby. They wore colorful clothes; they fought and feasted, fell in love, kidnapped each other, besieged castles…I walked into that cinema knowing that one day I wanted to write novels and walked out of it knowing exactly what kind of novel I wanted to write. Historical novels set in the middle ages. From then on, I couldn’t read enough medieval history. I didn’t tell my teachers, though. They would have wanted me to pass exams and spoiled all the fun.
FLJ: Did you read historicals after Ivanhoe or go straight to the “real” history?
VA: I read Ivanhoe then spent nearly every minute of my spare time sitting on the floor of the history section reading my way along the history shelves – the medieval bit. I took some of the books out and kept the whole thing a dead secret from my history teacher. I sank right to the bottom of the class. I didn’t want the teachers to know. It was too exciting and too private. In my talks I always say, “If there are any teachers among you, I’m going to preach sedition. It’s a mistake to hitch all learning to the examination wagon. There are such things as private voyages of the mind.” This was one of them.
FLJ: Why did you cross over to historical mysteries?
VA: It took a long time to get into print, but I just kept trying – for about 20 years, come to think of it – until I finally succeeded. Historicals, however, have a checkered track record. They keep going out of fashion. Sometimes they slip back in for a while but it doesn’t last.
Historical mysteries, though, seem to have got a grip, especially since Ellis Peters launched that marvelous Cadfael series. I noticed that one of my books, Crown of Roses, which is about the mystery of the princes in the Tower, did better than any other, and concluded that the mystery element might be part of the reason (the other part is that the mystery itself is so famous).
Well, I love reading whodunits anyway, so I decided to try this new field. I’m enjoying it.
FLJ: How do you research your books?
VA: I regularly do a talk on writing and research and the research bit takes about twenty minutes! To put it briefly: I have of course been reading history for interest and pleasure for years and years and have a reasonably sound general background on the parts which interest me most. When planning a specific book, I read works on the period and take notes, and then chase up such details as the layout of particular towns, styles of furniture, fashions of the time, laws in force, technologies which existed then, etc. by reading books on those subjects. I often visit a museum such as the British Museum, to look at artifacts; I sometimes visit places that I want to feature so as to get them right. And I use maps a lot!
To Ruin a Queen is set on the Welsh-English border, partly in a haunted castle. While researching this, I at one point had my sitting room floor completely carpeted with Landranger maps while I tried to work out whether one could or could not ride a horse from one point to another in a single day. Having concluded that it wasn’t possible, I decided to move my haunted castle 17 miles westward. Come to think of it, one of the satisfying things about being an author is the sheer power one has over one’s characters and settings!
I also sometimes interview people and have been known to write to historians to ask specific questions. What usually happens, in the middle of reading up on the period, chasing the facts I need and spreading the maps all over the place, then the urge to get started becomes too strong. Then I get about half-way through and I say “oh, I’ve got to find out about that” and I find out about it and it changes the plot, so I have to go back and all but start again. I just can’t seem to keep this from happening. It doesn’t seem to matter in the end. It just seems the urge to write overtakes the information available.
I always try to be accurate, because there is always someone out there who will write in and point out your mistakes.
FLJ: Why did you adopt a nom de plume for the historical mysteries?
VA: I didn’t actually want to change my name but Orion, the British publisher who launched the Ursula Blanchard series, wanted me to have a new identity for my new venture, and they insisted. I certainly don’t wish to keep my real name secret! I may write things under the name of Valerie Anand in the future, just as I did in the past, and would hate to lose out on readers who know me as Fiona Buckley and don’t realize that Valerie Anand is the same person! Or vice versa.