Kelly Gardiner writes historical novels, for different audiences, and her newest release is The Sultan’s Eyes on September 1st. In case you aren’t familiar with her work we had her answer some questions for us about her life, writing and career.
Hi Kelly, thanks for talking with us today and welcome to Beauty and Lace.
Have you always wanted to be a writer?
Thanks for inviting me. I wanted to be a writer when I was very young; inspired, probably, by Emily of New Moon, who was Anne of Green Gables’ more interesting neighbour. At times I also wanted to be an architect and an archaeologist, but both turned out to involve maths – not my forte. Mind you, I’m still fascinated by archaeology.
What made you want to write historical novels for young adults?
The books I loved most when I was growing up were those wonderful historical adventures by people like Rosemary Sutcliff and Geoffrey Trease. I love the way they evoke place and time as well as character – creating a voice that you can easily read but that is still steeped in the world view of the era.
I also wanted to write for young adults about a young woman who doesn’t have superpowers but is a real fighter – with words, not weapons. (Although I do love a sword fight.)
You have also written a series for younger readers and a picture book. How does the process differ and was any one more difficult than the others?
I don’t think the process of writing novels for specific age groups is all that different or difficult, and it takes as much research, plotting and thinking to create a historical novel for any age group. My first books were a trilogy of pirate adventures for slightly younger readers, set in the Mediterranean during the Napoleonic era, and the young adult novels are also set in Europe at an earlier time, so there’s a lot of research involved.
The books are different lengths, obviously, and require specific approaches to structure and vocabulary for the age groups, but the writing process is much the same.
That said, my next book after this one is a novel for adults and that has been a very intense and long project, quite complex as it’s based on the life of a real person.
A picture book is a very different process. It’s more like writing a concrete poem. You have only a few hundred words to convey an entire story or concept or feeling, and you also have to structure it across the page spreads and try to imagine illustrations that haven’t been created yet – and will be created by someone else. There’s a science to making those few words and the story travel across the pages – it’s fascinating. I’d love to do more.
The Sultan’s Eyes is released September 1st, what can you tell us about the book?
It’s the sequel to Act of Faith (2011), and it’s a historical adventure set in Venice and Constantinople (Istanbul) in the mid-seventeenth century, when the Ottoman Empire was ruled by a seven year-old Sultan and his grandmother.
The main character is Isabella Hawkins, who we met in Act of Faith, a well-educated young woman in an era when that was relatively uncommon – though not as rare as you’d think. She and her friends are in the printing and publishing business, quite a risky thing to do in many parts of Europe at the time, as books were often banned and their publishers punished by authorities of all sorts.
That’s exactly what happens to them, and they are forced to flee Venice and travel to Constantinople, and try to fit into a world which is very different from their own and equally dangerous.
Why did you choose this particular time period?
I was reflecting on issues of technological and cultural change – in Isabella’s case, it’s the explosion of printing technology and publishing in the seventeenth century – and all the political and religious upheavals that lead to her becoming a refugee. People felt then as if there was too much information, too many new ideas, and the world felt a little out of control of traditional authorities. Sound familiar? Galileo, to name just one, had just made so many amazing discoveries but was tried and punished by the Inquisition.
To Isabella and her friends, it’s a very exciting time of opportunity, writing, thinking and new ways of seeing the world.
Do you have a process for your writing? What comes first, character or plot?
There’s no set process. I first had an image of Isabella standing on the deck of a sinking ship, but I didn’t know who she was or where she was – or even when. I just started writing it and a snatch of story came to me.
Then I do a lot of research and keep writing. I don’t necessarily know what’s going to happen at the end until I get there. The characters are the first priority for me, and the setting, then I get to a point where I can see what might happen. I do plot it all out carefully at some point, but not at the start. Or at least, not this time.
For years I thought you needed a set process and I never got around to writing a book because I believed you had to have the whole thing plotted out and start at the start. Then at last I realised: just start anywhere. With anything.
There are no rules about starting. Just write.
How much research goes into your books?
Months and months. And months. In fact it doesn’t stop until the final edits are in and even then I wake up in the middle of the night and worry that I’ve got some tiny thing wrong. It’s very important to me that things be as right as they can be, because we learn a lot about history from fiction and I don’t want anyone learning stuff that’s wrong. A lot of research doesn’t ever appear in the books, it’s just getting a feel for the era and the places.
For example, I need to know what key buildings existed in Venice or Istanbul at that time and which ones came later – the building might never be mentioned in the text but it gives me a better vision of the city and the skyline as I move the characters around the streets and canals. As well as endless numbers of books I refer to a lot of contemporary maps and paintings and especially still life paintings and portraits, and now so many museum and gallery collections are digitised I can do a great deal of in-depth research from home. But nothing beats standing in the street or building where your characters might have stood three hundred years earlier. So I do travel if I can, or have spent some time in the main cities where the books are set.
Is there a favourite time or place your like to write? A favoured implement?
I can write anywhere, anytime – on the train, in a noisy cafe – and I don’t have a favourite spot right now. I do have a writing room at home, but I haven’t lived there very long and it takes a while to settle in to a writing spot.
I have a part-time job and am studying so I just have to grab spare moments while I’m commuting or run away to a cafe in my lunch break. I wake up far too early and get lots done then. I have stacks of notebooks for scribbling notes and ideas and working whenever I have a spare moment. Then I write it up and whip it into shape on my laptop on my days off. I have to be very disciplined on my writing days otherwise I’d just sit about drinking coffee and daydreaming. I use Scrivener writing software and when I’m scribbling in my notebooks I always use mechanical pencils – ink just seems too much of a commitment.
Are you working on anything at the moment you can tell us about?
The adult novel I mentioned is based on the real life of the amazing Mademoiselle de Maupin (Julie d’Aubigny) who was a seventeenth century swordswoman, cross-dresser and opera star. She fought duels – once with three men at once – had famous and powerful lovers, committed several crimes, and was one of France’s most renowned singers. Honestly, you couldn’t make it up. The book will be published in the middle of next year by Fourth Estate, and we’re just looking at the first round of edits now.
What does being a woman mean to you?
Wow. What a question! That’s like asking me what does it mean to be human
– I can’t separate my being from my gender. Not without writing you a long essay. So perhaps I should just say that it depends on the day. Some days I look back at what the world was like when I was 15 and I’m so proud and amazed at the progress women have made. I see many young women today living lives filled with possibility. Other days I see how many young women around the world are living with so little hope, and listen to some of the public debates we are still having, and I just despair. But I feel sure that possibility will overcome despair one day.
And that is probably the theme of all my books. So far.
Thanks for your time Kelly and good luck with all of your releases.