Sophie Masson, the prolific and energetic writer of books for children, young adults and adults, has recently spent a month in Cambridge and I took advantage, I have to confess, of her presence to ask her if she would answer some questions for me to go on this blog, because I thought readers of History Girls would be interested in her views.
She is an indefatigable blogger as well as a writer and a publisher of her own imprint, Christmas Press....I have to declare an interest because she's published a book of mine. Below is one of hers:
Her Author Site is :www.sophiemasson.org and her blog is to be found at :www.firebirdfeathers.com
Below is a link to a very full and fascinating interview in which Sophie tells us about her approach to writing historical novels for children. It's well worth listening to all the way through because she says things that will resonate with many of the writers on this blog, and with many of its readers too.
I then asked Sophie some questions by email and here they are with her answers.
AG:You come from a very interesting background, and you are sort of straddling two cultures. It seems to have done you nothing but good to be half French. Can you say if your life as a child had any elements in it that you can see, looking back, led straight to your interest in all things historical?
SM: Yes, most definitely! My father is a huge history buff and always talked a lot about the past, not only our family's - he knew stuff about it going back to the 16th century and had the genealogical table off by heart!- but also the history of France, especially the bits he was particularly interested in: the Gallo-Roman period, the Middle Ages, the French Revolution. He had lots and lots of old books and newspapers - lots of primary sources as well as secondary ones - and he is also very good at making history come alive in stories. We also had quite a few 'bandes déssinées : comic-type graphic novels which dealt with historical subjects (it's a big thing in France, telling history in BD for kids). And at school in Australia, I was really interested in history. I did both Ancient and Modern History in high school and read a lot of historical novels as a teenager, including those by such authors as Jean Plaidy and Anya Seton.
AG:Do you think the story is more important than the history when writing a novel? I know you'd never twist any verifiable fact but how much leeway do you have to invent stuff?
SM: I think the story has to be front and centre in a novel, but the history is the back of it, as it were, and needs to be properly understood and kept to in terms of the major events, dates, people etc. However I think one does have a certain leeway in inventing things. What I try to do is find a gap in the historical record, even about some thing or someone famous and work around that. I did that with my Ned Kelly books for instance.
The life of Australia's most famous folk hero and legendary outlaw has been well documented, but there are still lots of areas which aren't known, of possibility there for a touch of authorial embroidery! And where the historical record makes it difficult to insert your character in, say, a famous event, I try to approach it from a lateral view. For instance in The Hunt for Ned Kelly, I couldn't put my main character, Jamie, at Ned Kelly's last stand in Glenrowan, because there is a very documented record of exactly who was there and Kelly historians would be down on you like a ton of bricks if you played too fast and loose! Instead, I had Jamie act as a messenger for one of the major newspapers in Melbourne which was publishing a new edition every couple of hours as more news of what was going on in Glenrowan came down the telegraph wires from the reporters who were there (having been invited to witness the capture of the Kelly gang by the police, a real media circus!) People were so drawn into the blow by blow accounts that lots didn't go to work but hung around outside newspaper offices, waiting for more news as it happened. When I found that out, I thought that was the perfect way to convey the urgency of the events and have Jamie involved while not playing too fast and loose with what happened.
AG: If you could pick only one century to write about, which would you pick and why?
SM: The 19th century is great and I've written lots about it, but I also love the 12th century and the 17th century. Really, every century has interest. It depends on the story.
AG:Several of your books could be called Historical Fantasy. Does fantasy writing, like historical writing, have rules? If so, what are they? And is it easy to make these two genres mesh?
SM: The two genres are very similar in that they ask for a greater suspension of disbelief on the part of readers than does, say, contemporary realism. So whether you're talking about the 'real' past or a past that has added magic - which is what much of my 'historical fantasy' is - then you need to make sure it all feels believable, on its own terms. There are no real rules, other than that. Even when you're writing 'alternative history', as I did with The Hand of Glory,
which imagines an Australia where France has colonised the western part of the continent, the way history was changed to achieve the result had to feel logical and believable.
It's easy in fact to make the two genres mesh, by making it not only about the external facts of the time or internal emotions of the characters, but also about their world view and beliefs. For instance, in Forest of Dreams, which is set around the life and work of 12th century poet, Marie de France, I set it within the medieval world view, where shapeshifters and witches were as much part of life as knights and serfs. It then becomes a picture of the imaginative world of the time as much as the real world.
AG: Can you tell us a bit about your latest novel, Jack of Spades?
SM: Jack of Spades is set in Paris in 1910 and follows the adventures of a 16 year old girl, half-French, half-English Linda Duke, whose father, a Shakespearean academic, goes missing while on a research trip to Paris. Linda goes looking for him and falls into a dangerous world of spies, terrorists and political machinations that draw her deeper and deeper into the heart of a very dangerous secret plot. It came out of my fascination with Belle Epoque Paris, with its many contradictions: glamour and misery, arts and anarchy, unstable politics and respectable bourgeois life. It was also the beginning of the modern British intelligence services, when they employed amateurs, even young people, on assignments. It was a lot of fun to write and seems to have gone down very well with readers. Which is always very pleasing, of course!
AG: Thanks so much, Sophie. It was great to see you in the UK. Hope you visit again soon!