I'm hugely excited to bring you an interview with Anne O'Brien, author of two of my favourite historical novels of recent years, The Virgin Widow and Devil's Consort. Both books are highly recommend for YA's and adults who love history and great characters.
When you close your eyes and imagine your readers, what do you see?
My readers are women.
Although this is not intentional when I write, I know my novels, with a female protagonist and an element of romance, appeal primarily to women. After saying that, my husband has read both Virgin Widow and Devil’s Consort and enjoyed them both. Perhaps he is biased. He read them both to the end – he didn’t cheat and skip over the pages as far as I could tell.
I do not see any particular age range in my readers. I have had conversations with readers from sixteen to eighty.
As I've stated before when reviewing your novels, I think the extras such as the author Q & A, further reading suggestions, and historical details on your characters really add to them. One of my favourites for Devil's Consort is the 'Questions for Your Reading Group'. Do you think many of your readers will take part in reading groups?
I hope my novels will be adopted by reading groups. I have been invited to visit a number of them - they have become so widespread and give such pleasure, and an opportunity to read books you would not normally choose to read. I know of some groups that have read Virgin Widow. The best comment of all for me to hear? I don’t normally read historical fiction - but I enjoyed this one.
What are you reading at the moment?
I recently read Emma Donoghue’s Room. She was a new author to me so decided to read more. I came across Slammerkin – historical again sent in 18th Century London. I am finding it to be a page turner.
At the same time – I often have two books at the same time, depending on my mood - I am reading Sebastian Foulks’ A Week in December. I have been hooked on his writing since picking up Birdsong many years ago.
Why is Devil's Consort being released as Queen Defiant in the USA?
Difficult to say really. My original title, Devil’s Consort, is based on Eleanor’s relationship with Henry Plantagenet and a conversation between the two of them in the novel. My UK editors MIRA stuck with it, my US editors NAL decided to change it to Queen Defiant.
If you could ask any other author any question, what would you ask and who would you ask it to?
It would have to be Emily Bronte. Wuthering Heights is always in the news, and there has been the recent new adaptation on BBC Radio 3. And the question? Where did her ideas for such a rampantly emotional, passionate novel come from? The themes of mental cruelty and obsessive love and heartbreak seem to be so far outside her very narrow experience. It was an amazing achievement - and her only published novel. A conversation with Emily Bronte to discover how she constructed such a powerful story would be remarkable.
If you could live in any place and any time period in history, where and when would it be?
Although I think on balance I prefer living today - I don’t do discomfort very well – I have always had a sneaking longing to experience life in a Roman villa. I have visited many – such as the splendid site at Fishbourne on the south coast. One of the first historical sites I remember visiting as a child was the city of Bath with its spectacular Roman baths. I think a small villa just outside the town would have suited me very well. I like the idea of the under-floor heating, the mosaic floors, the open courtyards, the piped water source and the plastered, painted walls. I could imagine living very comfortably there in a little Roman luxury. Even the food and wine sound attractive – although I would have to draw the line at the stuffed dormice.
How much research do you do before writing one of your books?
I begin with some very general reading to set the scene; how my characters lived, what they ate and wore, their leisure pursuits and as far as it is possible to determine, what they thought about the events that determined their lives. From there I turn to specifics, the lives of the characters at the centre of the novel. So I read biographies, diaries, contemporary literature, anything I come across relevant to the period.
Once I have a plan of the life of my leading characters, I list the scenes which will bring some element of tension or excitement or emotion into the story. I also make a list of areas which can be omitted, or given a mere passing reference, to keep up the pace of the story. (I am an inveterate list maker!) Some events just don’t fit and it’s just as important to recognize these as it is the explosively important ones - although sometimes it surprises me when the scenes I’ve thrown out demand to be included when I begin writing.
I do not complete all my research before I begin writing. I become too impatient to see how my characters will develop. I need to make a start on creating my hero and heroine and the secondary subjects very early in the process. For this reason my research is ongoing – and when my characters surprise me, my research also leads me into areas I had not at first considered. I think it is important to keep an open mind and to some extent allow the story to dictate its own direction.
Looking at the top 10 books you list as your favourites in the Devil's Consort, they're mainly historical fiction or novels written many years ago. Are there any current authors writing contemporary fiction you particularly enjoy?
I admire and enjoy the following:
Jodi Picoult for her superbly crafted arguments that lead you to question all your own prejudices and those of society.
Joanna Trollope for her ability to make riveting drama and emotion out of everyday lives.
Rose Tremain – I simply enjoy her novels and wait for the next to be published.
Anne Tyler for her sly peek into American life.
Joanne Harris - I have had some happy moments with her novels, with their mix of fact and fantasy and otherworldly powers.
Henning Mankel: when I want a good, engaging whodunit – I’m a Wallander fan.
Have you ever thought about collaborating with another author on a
novel? If so, who would be your dream writing partner? (Alive or dead,
I'm feeling generous!)
I haven’t! And I couldn’t! And the fault would be mine!
I find writing a very private occupation and a very personal one. I often make choices from instinct – a ‘gut feeling.’ I don’t collaborate easily: I think I’m very possessive about my writing. I think I would even argue the toss with Shakespeare.
Now, if my writing partner was dead and I was ‘ghost writing’ their memories of an exciting life , that would be another matter. What a godsend Eleanor of Aquitaine would have been. As long as she let me make the final decisions ...
What's next for Anne O'Brien?
I am writing the first novel in a serious of four under the heading of Wives and Mistresses, covering the period of the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries. This first one, King’s Concubine, plots the career of Alice Perrers, the notorious lover of Edward III’s later years. She had a vicious reputation, which I think was not wholly undeserved - Alice was not a victim of circumstance. After admitting that, I decided that she could not be all bad, and it would be interesting to make her into a heroine, even if a somewhat unconventional one. Some of her talents for which she was damned in the fourteenth century would be highly praised today. She was an excellent businesswoman. I am enjoying the challenge of writing about her.
For more on Devil’s Consort and eventually on Alice Perrers, do visit my website and Facebook page, and you can follow me on twitter:
Thanks so much for the interview Anne! Really enjoyed finding out more about your work and as a fellow fan of Jodi Picoult I'll make sure I check out some of the other authors you recommended. Can't wait for Wives and Mistresses!