Friday 11 March 2016

Interview with Suzannah Dunn by Katherine Clements

I first met Suzannah Dunn in 2008 when she was my tutor on an Arvon course. That week was an important turning point for me – Suzannah, an insightful and inspiring teacher, encouraged me to begin writing the novel that would eventually become my debut, The Crimson Ribbon. And she’s been there, a friend and mentor, supporting, commiserating and cheerleading ever since.

Suzannah’s own writing career began with contemporary fiction. She wrote six critically acclaimed novels and a short story collection before her first historical novel, The Queen of Subtleties – a retelling of the story of Anne Boleyn – was published in 2004. Since then she’s written five bestselling novels about the Tudors. Her latest, The Lady of Misrule, tells the story of Lady Jane Grey’s imprisonment in the Tower and is out now in paperback.

You can spot Suzannah’s grounding in contemporary fiction in her historical work. Her use of modern language is both brave and unusual, sometimes dividing opinion between readers who prefer a more traditional approach and those who enjoy the immediacy it creates. I’m definitely in the latter camp. What I like most about her writing is how she sheds new light on well-known stories. Like all the best historical writers she had the knack of making history feel fresh and relevant, showing us the inner workings of her character’s lives with deft pen strokes and stunning prose. I think she does historical fiction like no one else.

I asked her a few questions about her work and her love of history…

You’re best known for writing about the Tudors. What drew you to that period in the first place and why have you chosen to stay there? 

I wasn’t drawn to the period, I was drawn to a person:  Anne Boleyn.  At the time,  (c2000), I was wondering what/whom next to write about. I was stuck, and I remember saying to myself  (I know, I know, but it’s a lonely life, isn’t it, being a novelist),  ‘Well, what story interests you?’, which is interesting in itself, because as far as I am aware I’d never before started with the notion of ‘story’;  I’d always previously taken characters/a dynamic as my starting point.

Well, anyway, the answer that came to mind was ‘the story of Anne Boleyn’:  her rise and fall.  Which, of course, is all about character – hers, Henry’s, Catherine’s – and dynamics.  (Well, er, that and the Reformation.)

I don’t know why she came to mind, because although the Tudors are ‘always with us’ in this country, they’d been having a relatively low-key couple of decades  (this was before The Other Boleyn Girl and long before Wolf Hall); it had been quiet for a while in the Tudor Dept.

I dismissed the Anne Boleyn idea because I wasn’t a historical novelist and didn’t even read within that genre.  I hadn’t the first idea as to how to go about writing a historical novel.   But then, a day later, I thought to myself,  ‘So, don’t do it as a historical novel.’  But what did I mean by that?  I didn’t know!  Should I do an updated version, a ‘modern dress’ version?  

Well, I worked that one out, eventually, to my own satisfaction if not to everybody else’s, but, as you can see, it wasn’t that I was ‘drawn to the Tudors’; I was drawn to Anne Boleyn and, at that point, for me, she just happened to be a Tudor.

I had to do a lot of reading because I knew next to nothing about her and her world, and I loved it  (it was literally a whole new world, for me!).  So, when my agent suggested I write another novel set in that period, I set about it happily  (The Sixth Wife).  After that, my contracts didn’t specify Tudors but there was a verbal agreement that I would continue in that vein.

But what did I so love about that ‘whole new world’?  I suspect there’s a clue in the term ‘early modern’:  a period on the cusp of what we might recognise as modernity; an intriguing mix of alien and familiar  (and isn’t that what’s working for us as readers with a good piece of writing? - that mix of inevitable and surprising, that feeling of ‘Oh, yes, it IS like that, isn’t it!  That IS how that is.’)

But a big motivating factor for me is myth-busting.  I do of course recognise that it’s not a case of ‘truth’ and then, tagging along somewhere behind it, ‘myth’; I do of course know that all history is reconstruction and, as such, is a product of the age in which that history is being told.  But the Tudors - potent as they are in British popular culture - are prime prey for myth-making.  With the Anne Boleyn novel, I set out on an admittedly rather old-fashioned mission to Get It Right, and, frankly, getting it right remains important to me.  

You began your career writing contemporary fiction and short stories. Why did you make the move to writing about history?

I suppose I was trying to write the kind of novel about Anne Boleyn that I’d like to read.  And perhaps that meant Getting It ‘Literary’, too.  At the time I started writing The Queen of Subtleties, (a decade before Wolf Hall was published), the Tudors had, as far as I knew, never been anywhere but within the domain of genre historical fiction.  I don’t know how to write any differently from how I’ve always written, and prior to these so-called historical novels of mine, I’d been positioned as a writer of literary fiction.  And I was  (broadly speaking) a reader of literary fiction.  Where were the novels about Tudors that I might want to read?  I set out to write them, I suppose. 

I don’t write ‘about history’; but the people I write about have in some cases said or done things or had things done to them that are a matter of historical record.  Nor, to my mind, do I write about ‘the past’, because fiction-writing for me is made up of writing about  (re-imagining, recreating on the page) small moments, and those moments have never actually happened  (or, if they did, we can never know about it!) – the way the air smells on a particular morning, the way the shadows fall during a particular dusk, the way someone smiles at you as they enter the room.  That’s what concerns me, as a writer – that’s what I’m writing about.  Any framework of historical ‘facts’ – this happened, that happened – isn’t any different, for me, than the frameworks I had when I was writing contemporary-set novels.

In your Tudor novels you use modern language, a decision that seems to elicit divided opinion among readers. Was it a deliberate choice and have you ever felt pressure to tone it down?

This is going to be another long answer, sorry:  hold onto your hats!  (or, hold your fingertip on the PgDn key…)  It was indeed deliberate.  I do have my reasons, such as they are, the main one being that we don’t know how sixteenth century people spoke.  We know how they wrote – or how some did, those who could, and in the kinds of documents that have come to us down the centuries  (wills, court documents etc).  There are letters, too, here and there, but letter-writing has always had its own conventions and probably never more so than when writing was new to much of the population. Letters weren’t exactly dashed off.  (Actually, practically, they couldn’t be – writing with a quill was a laborious business.)  None of those written documents tell us much about how people spoke.

Even nowadays we speak very differently from how we write, which you’ll know if you’ve ever had to deal with transcripts.  Consciously and unconsciously, we do a lot of tidying up to articulate ourselves on a page, which is of course largely what the skill of writing is. So, it’s not just for historical novelists, this issue of how best to ’translate’ speech and thoughts into the written word.  Think of regional or other societal variations…  On the one hand, it can seem ridiculous for some characters or narrators to be speaking so-called Queen’s English, but, then again, is it any better to confine them to phonetic spelling?

The answer is, of course, that there’s no answer.  There are no hard and fast rules - every writer feels his or her way with each voice to a position somewhere on a spectrum, and hopes that readers will go along with it. 

And, actually, talking of variation:  there would never have been any single ‘Tudor-speak’, either.  

Still, most writers want at the very least to give an impression of people in the past speaking differently from how they might speak now.  So, how can we do that?  Well, we can make an educated guess – and some guesses, in historical fiction, are more educated than others, by which I’m not being rude, merely recognising that some writers take it as a more pressing or diverting issue than others do, and fair enough, each to his or her own.  So, in historical fiction, we’ve had everything from slightly stilted dialogue  (the avoidance of contractions, for example -  ‘do not’ rather than ‘don’t’ - which for some reason I’ve never fathomed is supposed to be old-fashioned, as if people in the past didn’t use contractions) to full-on cod-Tudor, with, along the way, sprinklings of archiac words or expressions and subtle differences in cadence and inflection.  

The academic Laura Saxton makes a distinction between ‘accuracy’ and ‘authenticity’ which I find useful.  Take the televised Wolf Hall:  the dark cloaks in which the men skulked and swished.  That felt right… right?  It was authentic, yes?  What it wasn’t, as far as historians can ascertain, is accurate.  The clothes of gentlemen of the court, at that time, were brightly coloured.  But that’s not what twenty-first century viewers expect; it would feel wrong, it’s out of step with the twenty-first century popular understanding of the Henrician court.  We’re not going to take Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell seriously if he’s dressed in pink silk.  

For me, it’s similar with vocabulary. There isn’t a writing day of mine that goes by without my having checked the origins of a handful of words or expressions to see if they were in use in the sixteenth century…  not that I won’t necessarily use them if they weren’t, but at least I’m then making a conscious decision, not a ‘mistake’.

Can I ask you:  which of these two words ‘feels right’ to you, as a Tudor word?  ‘Brat’ and ‘wrongfooted’.

Well, Brat is sixteenth century in origin, but the first recorded use of Wrongfoot was in 1928.

So much for ‘accuracy’.  As with telly-watching, though, authenticity is at least as important to the reading experience and I recognise that for some readers the dialogue that my characters speak just seems ridiculous, it jarrs and ruins that crucial suspension of belief.  I do understand that; honestly, I do; I sympathise!  So why do I push it to an extreme, then? If there’s a spectrum from cod olde English to contemporary, why do I set up camp at the far end of it?

Well, many – most? – writers of historical fiction want to stress the difference between ‘then’ and ‘now’.  That’s where the story is, the drama.  And surely the same can be said for many readers, too:  part of the pleasure lies in the strangeness.  But what draws me isn’t the difference but the similarities.  It’s not what I’d expect of myself, being a believer that each of us is largely a product of our of time and place… but, well, there you are:  I don’t see myself as writing about Tudors but about characters who just happen to be Tudor.  
My job as a fiction writer, as I see it, is, basically, to make things feel real  (and for ‘things’, read ‘people’, ‘relationships’,  ‘dynamics’, ‘situations’…  anything, everything).   I want to have my readers feel that they are there, in a particular situation with particular people.  The last thing I want to do is flag up differences, because that – I feel – creates distance, and the characters become curiosities.   When you are reading one of my novels, I want you to be there, I want that to be your world, your people.  

I have to admit that when I started out, when I began The Queen of Subtleties, I was following my nose.  One of the two narrative voices was to be Anne Boleyn’s and what struck me from my reading of her was that she was forthright, outspoken, uncompromising and, above all, for her time, ‘modern’.  So, how was I going to re-create her on the page?  Well, not by having her speaking mannered ‘old-fashioned language’, it seemed to me.  This was a woman who, on at least one occasion, had foreign ambassadors so disgusted by her language that in defiance of protocol they turned their backs on her and left the room.  In a situation such as that, what would I have her saying?  As I saw it, ‘Christ’s fut’ or anything like that just wouldn’t cut it.  So, in the novel, she ‘speaks’ in up-to-date language.  Because, in her time, her world, that was what she did.

When I’d finished that novel, my agent and editor each compiled a list of words which had, for them, jarred:  words that had gone too far.  I was grateful for their efforts and I did study those lists, but in the end decided to ignore them because, otherwise, I’d be writing by committee; the result would be cautious, mealy-mouthed, which was exactly what Anne Boleyn wasn’t.  I’d had a vision for that book, and I decided I had to stay true to it.

And, on the whole, I liked the result, which was why I went on to write similarly in subsequent books although not as yet as uncompromisingly because none of those subsequent characters have quite required it.  I do understand that for some readers the modern language ‘gets in the way’.  But that’s how the stilted voices of many other historical novels seem to me.   
In your latest novel, The Lady of Misrule, you’ve chosen to introduce a fictional character through which to tell the story of Lady Jane Grey’s imprisonment in The Tower. Mixing fictional with real life characters is a device you’ve used before and one I’ve employed in my own writing. What do you think are the benefits and drawbacks in writing about real people from history?

Depends what you mean by ‘fictional’ and ‘real’.  Historians seem to be in agreement that one of the women attending Lady Jane in the Tower was probably an Elizabeth Tilney.  So, it’s likely that she existed, even if we know nothing about her.  But, then, what do we know about Lady Jane Grey?  Very little, as it happens. And what do we know, frankly, of anyone long-dead?  Or, indeed, anyone?  It’s all reconstruction, isn’t it?  It’s just that with some people, some characters, we might claim to have more to go on.

And as for what we have to go on:  I love doing the reading, because for me it’s like hearing a load of gossip (sorry, historians! – I know full well it’s not gossip, but bear with me!) in that having heard what’s been said, I have to decide what I, myself, think.  I’m listening very carefully - weighing up the various accounts, using my own judgement, trying my utmost to get it right, to do that person justice.

We all know so much about the Tudors. One of the things you do so well is re-telling these stories in a way that keeps the reader on the edge of the seat, even though they know the ending. How do you maintain a sense of tension? Any tips?

You’re very sweet, thank you, but I’m laughing because even if it’s true – that I do keep readers on edges of seats – I have absolutely no idea how I do it!  I mean, it’s just the usual business of story-writing; it’s what we do, or try to.  If it’s working, I suspect it’s because we’re working moment by moment  (see above, re:  not writing about ‘the past’), because tension – any that there is – emerges from those moments; it’s not something that you can graft on, you can’t slap it on top of a scene.

Most of your books have female narrators and protagonists. Is representing women in history important to you?

To be entirely honest, I can’t remember how important it might have been to me back at the beginning, how much of a motivation, because now it’s become second nature, it’s become what I do.  I’d say it’s perhaps more about unheard voices in general, though, for me, than specifically women…although, actually, I wouldn’t say that women’s ‘voices’ are ‘unheard’, nowadays, in historical fiction  (quite the contrary).  (The exception, it seems to me, is Hilary Mantel’s work:  to my mind, she doesn’t really ‘do women’, in Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies.) 

Interestingly, this became something of an issue at a meeting at my publishers, last year:  there was a brief, divisive, inconclusive discussion about how much to ‘push’ the ‘women’ angle of my books – could/should I be characterised as writing about women’s lives before or above and beyond writing about sixteenth century lives?  As I say: inconclusive.

I do locate my fiction largely in the domestic sphere, which is where women have traditionally held the balance of power.  So, there’s that.

The answer’s ‘Yes’, really, isn’t it.

Do you have a favourite historical place to visit? And why?

Not a particular favourite, I don’t think, but in general I love to visit churches, most of which  (but not all) are old and in many cases very old indeed.  I love it that I’m almost always alone when I’m visiting a church, and that I can get up close to – and dare to touch, even, perhaps, in the case of carvings – craftwork that might be a thousand years old  (I’m thinking fonts, here).  I love it that these beautiful buildings and their exquisite furnishings  (I’m particularly interested in stained glass and wall paintings) are in practically every village in this country (as well as there being wonderful examples in some towns and cities, of course), and although I do realise that they are owned by the church  (I don’t want to be naïve about this!), there’s still a sense, in my view, in which they belong to us, the common people.

Are there any other periods of history that intrigue you?

Well, I love it that I currently live on the site of an Iron Age hillfort and on the boundary of the grounds of a Roman villa.  And one of my absolute favourite places in the world – I doubt I will ever tire of visiting it – is the Early People’s gallery in the National Museum of Scotland.

Can you tell us what you’re working on now?

Indeed I can, and thank you for asking!  I’m back with Mary Tudor – I just can’t leave her alone, can I  (..but in view of some of what I said above about myth-busting, perhaps you can guess why).  I’m back with her but also with her half-sister, Elizabeth:  the novel in progress focuses  (well, if it’s possible to focus with a sideways look) on the drastically difficult relationship between the two half-sisters when Mary came to the throne.  The ‘sideways look’ is more sideways than in any of my previous historical novels; this novel is about a laundress from Mary’s household who is smuggled into Elizabeth’s to act as an informer.

My thanks to Suzannah for such a thought-provoking interview.

You can find out more about her at

1 comment:

Sue Purkiss said...

It's very interesting, isn't it, this question of whether you try to flag up that you're writing about the past by creating what you imagine to be an approximation of how people used to speak. Must read one of Susannah's books to see how her method works!