This is Part III of a three-part interview with historical fiction writer Valerie Anand. In Part I, Ms. Anand discussed how she became a historical fiction writer. In Part II, she discussed her Ursula Blanchard series and her feminist leanings.
FAITH L. JUSTICE: Have you been able to make a living as a fiction writer?
VALERIE ANAND: A lot of people said you’ll never earn a living as a writer, but I’m laughing last. It was hard in the beginning. I worked a 4-day week at the office and wrote the whole day on the fifth. It was physically very demanding. In 1989 I became redundant just as I received the contract to write the six-book series Bridges Over Time. I said, “Right, take the golden handshake, buy a word processor, convert the garage, and trust to luck.” I’m very pleased to say I’ve earned a living off my writing for quite a long time.
FLJ: How involved are you in the marketing of your books?
VA: I do occasional book signings. The marketing scene is not quite as lively over here as in America. I once went to a seminar run by the Society of Authors and there were a number of marketing Bobs on the panel. The authors gave them such a barraging that the whole thing felt rather like a rout or political meeting. The whole place was filled with authors who felt they were short changed.
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.
FLJ: Are there any differences between UK and American audiences?
VA: I think that American audiences are actually keener on history than British ones just now. Otherwise I wouldn’t say there was a great deal of difference.
FLJ: What’s your creative day like?
VA: We wake up at about 7, make tea, drink it in bed while reading the papers. Then comes a shower and breakfast and usually a short walk, just to get a little exercise and refreshment. If you do a sedentary job like writing, and work from home, and are not athletic any longer (I have had a double knee replacement), then there is a danger of not getting enough exercise.
Having done that, I settle down to work. At the moment, as it’s winter so I’m working in the spare room. I have an office in a converted garage but in winter it tends to be chilly and damp and my printer doesn’t like it! Nor do I – it’s hard to concentrate when your feet are freezing despite socks and fleecelined boots. In summer, though, the office in the old garage is wonderful. I can work with the door open and see my favorite rosebush all the time.
These days I usually work all morning, except for coffee, and perhaps for an hour in the afternoon. I used to work longer hours but found that the last hour or two was often not very productive. The work needed a lot of revising. I find I get just as much done by knocking off at midday or in mid-afternoon. I work four or five days a week.
FLJ: Who are your favorite authors?
VA: My favorite book of all time is J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. I belong to the Tolkien Society. Among my other favorite modern authors are Susan Howatch, Dick Francis, Robert Goddard, Terry Pratchett, Arthur C. Clarke, Joanna Trollope and, of course, Lindsey Davis.
Of classical authors, my favorites are Jane Austen and the Brontes, and in between, as it were, Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie, John Wyndham. All these have produced books which can be re-read and re-read.
FLJ: Have they influenced your own writing?
VA: I suppose they have in some ways. I think one does one learn – without knowing your learning – a lot from reading well-written books. You learn how to construct passages, how to create an atmosphere. You don’t know your doing it. You couldn’t describe how its done, but have absorbed a good deal. With Tolkien – which I’m rereading at the moment – I had to go through my current manuscript and remove all the references to clear water and merry meetings. He’s got such a vocabulary that is finds its way into your own work if you’re not careful. It catches like measles. And another writer, that’s almost forgotten nowadays, that I think is fantastic, is T.H. White. The language in The Sword in the Stone is catching too.
FLJ: Where do you get your characters and plots?
VA: So many of these things happen at a subconscious level that this is difficult. Plots just grow and so do people. But I’ll try.
In the case of Ursula, I study Elizabethan history, pick out events and plots that may be useful and try to work out ways in which she could get involved. An outline emerges and bit by bit I fill in the details. The needs of the plot dictate the characters. Well, that’s the way I do it usually. In To Ruin a Queen, the setting on the Welsh border came into my mind because some cousins took me on a trip there. I looked at the Welsh mountains and the castles round the border and I found the atmosphere so fascinating that I at once wanted to set a book in the district. It must have wild mountains in it, I decided, and a grim castle – better still, a haunted castle.
I read up the local history and was reminded that there was once a very powerful family there called the Mortimers. I invented descendants for a Mortimer who didn’t actually have any, decided that he might want to restore his family’s fortunes and then made him choose a highly dubious way of doing it.
Meanwhile, I had left Ursula in France, so I had to invent a way of getting her back to England. Bit by bit, I built up a scenario whereby Elizabeth and Sir William Cecil had been alerted to the existence of a possible plot, decided that they needed Ursula back, and found a means of doing so. And so the plot developed.
In Bridges, I first of all by created a vast family tree. I gave very long lives to some individuals and then invented life histories for them suitable to their era. I gave them names almost at random, limited only by the names in use at the time, but in some way, certain names seemed to suggest certain personalities. The life histories just grew, and again, the needs of the plot would dictate what other characters were required.
FLJ: You seem very involved in causes. Is this an “antidote” to the isolation of writing?
VA: When I became redundant from my job, I took a deep breath and decided I would become a full-time writer. I found it lonely and restricted in some ways. My principal spare time interest is the Exmoor Society. I was taken on holiday to Exmoor (on the south side of the Bristol Channel) as a child, loved the place and went on loving it. I used to go down there to ride, for there is no better way to explore the moorland and the valleys round it. Eventually I joined the society which is dedicated to its preservation and to encourage people to study it and care about it. There is a London Area Branch, and I am on the committee of this.
I also belong to Altrusa, a US based association mainly of professional women, who raise money to further the health and education of women in developing countries. There are numerous Altrusa groups in England and there is one near where I live. One of our projects is to provide classes in literacy and tailoring for village women in one part of India; another is to back up health and education projects in Ethiopia where girls are often married so young that they are injured by having children too early. The damage can be put right, but there is as yet only about one clinic in the country!
FLJ: Ms. Anand, thank you so much. You’ve been more than generous with your time.
VA: You’re welcome!