Guest Post - Harriet Steel

I was thrilled when Debbie invited me to come and talk to her on her blog but I must admit that latterly, I’ve been looking forward to the experience with some trepidation as well as pleasure. The prospect of being interviewed by a crime novelist who’s also in the police force is slightly alarming. Still, here goes – wish me luck.

DB.* Tell me about your writing.

HS. I started out, as many authors do, by writing short stories and sending them in to magazines. I was lucky enough to have a few accepted which was encouraging. I’ll always remember the day my first cheque came in the post, I wasn’t sure whether to cash it or frame it. After a few years, I decided to try my hand at a novel. Ever since my schooldays, English and History have been my favourite subjects. Historical novels are my staple reading diet so that genre seemed the obvious choice.

If you’re so fond of history, why don’t you write non-fiction?

That’s a fair question. I suppose the answer is partly that, although I enjoy research and try to give my readers accurate historical detail in my work, I also love storytelling. Readers’ expectations of historical non-fiction are pretty exacting these days too. Months, perhaps years, of spending my all days in libraries wouldn’t fit in well with my private life. That said, my first novel Becoming Lola was a biographical one about Lola Montez, the nineteenth century’s most notorious adventuress.

So what made you think you could write?

A tricky one that, I hope I’m not setting myself up to fail here. I won my school poetry prize when I was nine - my mother still has my winning entry somewhere. It owed a lot to Hilaire Belloc who was a popular comic poet at the time. I should probably have been sued for plagiarism.

In my twenties, life and work took over and I didn’t write much although when my daughters were growing up I occasionally made up stories to tell them. I started to write seriously about twelve years ago.

In 2004, I entered a competition organised by the BBC. It was called End of Story and the idea was that amateur writers would finish one of six short stories begun by professional authors. I chose a rather lyrical, magical story by Joanne Harris and to my amazement, several months later, a charming young man from the BBC rang to tell me I’d been shortlisted. Would I like to take part in the programme the competition had spawned? Do turkeys hate Christmas?

A wonderful weekend followed as three out of six of us (in the end I came second) who had finished Joanne’s story survived a judging panel in London and were whisked off to the Dartington Literary Festival to read our stories and talk about them in one of the events. After that, we were flown up to Manchester and driven on to Joanne’s home in the surrounding countryside. She couldn’t have been more welcoming and we all had great fun talking to her as well as seeing round her lovely early Victorian house (built by a wealthy wool merchant.) We filmed our pieces with her in the Japanese garden. It dates from just after the house was built and had been badly neglected when Joanne and her husband moved in. They spent more than a year unearthing the beautiful rhododendrons and azaleas which had survived under the tangle of weeds and reconstructing the steep, narrow watercourses and paths. I remember that the programme’s presenter, Claudia Winkleman, wore killer heels. How she managed to negotiate those paths without injury I’ll never know.

So, there were a few encouraging episodes even if there was still a long way to go. I think Joanne’s advice to us aspiring writers was the best thing. ‘Just drop the word “aspiring” and write.’

Do you have any formal training as a writer?

I once took a short course taught by a wonderful author called Beth Webb, but otherwise no, I don’t have a creative writing degree if that’s what you mean. I’d be the first to agree there’s always more to learn as a writer but I’m a little wary of too many rigid rules. That said, the maxim ‘show not tell’ is, I think, a very good one. After all, people like Jane Austen or Wilkie Collins never did creative writing degrees, did they?

You say your first novel was set in the nineteenth century, but for your next one, Salvation, an adventure story, you went back three hundred years to the sixteenth century. Why make life hard for yourself?

I didn’t really. Tudor times have always fascinated me and over the years I’ve read a lot about them. With the rise of the possibility of being a self-made man, they represent such a huge departure from the feudal, rigid medieval world. In the religious sphere, the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII overturned hundreds of years of church domination. The New World was also being opened up. In the medieval world, the extent of maps tended to stop abruptly with pictures of fire-breathing monsters and the words ‘Here Be Dragons.’

Are you a disciplined writer? Routines? Rituals?

I try to be but it’s easy to day dream about one’s characters and their doings then not get around to writing it down. When I get stuck, I usually go for a walk or tidy my desk, throwing away all those little bits of paper with illegible scrawls on them that were probably brilliant ideas if only I could read them.

My rituals tend to revolve around tea and biscuits, with the occasional glass of wine (that’s my story and I’m sticking to it) as a reward for pounding the keyboard.

You haven’t told us a lot about your personal life. What are you hiding?

Sadly, not much, I’m very ordinary. I live in a Surrey village about twenty miles from London. I’m a retired solicitor, married to a retired solicitor – they clone them round here. I have two grown-up daughters. The elder is a vet and the younger an editor for a large publishing house. She occasionally casts a professional eye over my stuff but her field is really fiction in translation, notably Scandi crime.

And are you working on something at the moment?

Yes, it’s another historical novel set once more in the nineteenth century but this time in Paris. It gives me a wonderful opportunity to write about the glamour that made Paris the most envied city in Europe at that time, but also about the city’s darker side, familiar to everyone who has seen the musical, Les Misérables. My heroine, Anna, has come from her home in Russia with her dashing new French husband. She’s thrilled at the prospect of living in the city of her dreams. What will happen to her? That’s my secret. There! I do have one after all.

Becoming Lola and Salvation are available in paperback or on Kindle. Harriet’s collection of short stories, Dancing and Other Stories, is available exclusively on Kindle. It includes Dryad, the story co-authored with Joanne Harris.

Follow Harriet on Facebook or Twitter @harrietstee1 or visit her blog for more about her books, author interviews and features.

* Debbie is of course far too kind to ask the blunter of these questions, but they are ones I have often asked myself. HS


julia jones said…
Thanks for posting Harriet - and thanks for asking the questions Debbie. I find the 'ordinariness' of you daily life most reassuring and also the sense n which writing is your second post-family career. Particularly love the Lola cover
Lydia Bennet said…
Lovely to read an interview on here, and great to meet you Harriet! I love history too so shall check out your books.
Chris Longmuir said…
I don't know whether this episode is in the book, but Lola lived in Montrose (where I live) for 8 months when she was 8 years old. She created a scandal by running out of Holly House (her home) and down the town's High Street, stark naked. Apparently her mother was married to the son of the Provost of Montrose at the time. I reckon he would have been her stepfather.
Harriet Steel said…
Hello Julia, Lydia and Chris,It's such a pleasure to hear from you. I'm fascinated by your Lola story, Chris. A bit of scandal I hadn't come across before, although I knew her mother was married to the Provost's son, an army man called Craigie, whom she met in India after her first husband died there of cholera. I often wish I could be transported back in time for a day to meet Lola. How she would have relished today's social media - the number of her followers would have been stratospheric I'm sure. She had such a gift for connecting with people, even if it was only to infuriate them! If you do read Becoming Lola (or any of my other books) I'd really value your views. Feedback is so useful. Best wishes to you all, Harriet
Lydia Bennet said…
I've downloaded the Lola book, it looks great!

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