Wednesday 17 June 2009

Interview - Michelle Cooper

Michelle Cooper, author of A Brief History of Montmaray, is the star of my Author Spotlight this week. She kindly allowed me to ask her many questions about her historical novel which will be available in the US from October.

What is your writing process?
For A Brief History of Montmaray, I spent about six months doing research and planning the novel, then about a year writing it. Then I wrote a second draft, which took a couple of months. I immersed myself in 1930s novels and non-fiction throughout the process. This wasn't exactly a hardship, because I find the period endlessly fascinating.

Where did the inspiration for A Brief History of Montmaray come from?
One morning, I was looking out my apartment window, wondering what living in a castle would be like, when I saw a picture in my mind of a girl sitting on a castle wall, writing in her diary. I decided that she was a princess living on an island and then lots of cool ideas started popping into my head - a search for the Holy Grail, skeletons at the bottom of the ocean, secret caves, aviators, pirates. My 1930s research threw out even more interesting ideas. The difficult part was knowing what to leave out of the story.

Research is key in historical fiction, what were you most surprised to learn about the 1930's?
Probably how restricted women's lives were. The 1930s isn't that long ago, but women in England had only just been allowed to vote, they had to resign from their jobs if they got married, they were kept out of a lot of professions and weren't able to get a degree at universities such as Cambridge. For upper-class girls in England, it was unusual for them to be allowed to go to school, and if they did, subjects such as Latin and Mathematics were regarded as too hard for their little female brains. It must have been enormously frustrating for intelligent girls like Veronica, to see all their family's money being spent educating their less-intelligent brothers.

For a long time, I expected Veronica and Simon's hostility to turn to romance, you took a very distinct turn away from that. Was this a deliberate plan?
Ha - yes! It always annoys me in romance novels when a boy and a girl spend fifteen chapters yelling and throwing things at one another, then suddenly, in the final chapter, fall into an embrace because they realise they are meant for each other and it's TRUE LOVE. In my experience, people who constantly snap and snarl at someone else actually HATE the other person. In Veronica and Simon's case, there's also a lot of jealousy and resentment due to a big PLOT SPOILER that I'd better not discuss here. It's a lot of fun writing their banter - they're much meaner than I'd ever be in real life.

Montmaray is the first of a trilogy, was this always planned and what can we expect in the future adventures of the FitzOsborne clan?
Yes, I always saw it as an epic tale, spread over ten years, although I wasn't sure anyone would even want to publish the first book, let alone all three of them! I'm currently writing the second book, tentatively titled The FitzOsbornes In Exile. It's about the family struggling to regain what they lost at the end of the first book, and it involves lots of international diplomacy and intrigue. Poor Veronica also spends a lot of time in Mortal Peril. The third book is set during the Second World War and I can exclusively reveal to the readers of this blog that one of my favourite characters dies in that book. I'm sure I'll cry buckets when I write that bit.

What is your planned timeline for the trilogy?
Do you mean when the books are set or when they'll be published? The first book is set in 1936-1937, the second in 1937-1939, and the third in 1939-1945. The first book comes out in North America in October this year, and the second book will be out in Australia next year, but I'm not sure exactly when. I haven't finished writing it yet!

We both work extensively with children. Has being a speech pathologist impacted your writing in anyway?
What a great question, Adele! I think training to be a speech pathologist helped me to be a better writer. Speech pathology students spend a lot of time recording conversations and analysing voice tone, syntax, vocabulary and everything else, so I find writing dialogue quite easy. We also studied grammar, so I now know exactly what my editor means when she tells me I'm using too many adverbs or asks whether I really need to have three subordinating clauses in a single sentence! The good thing about working with children is that I get to read lots of children's and teenager's books. Also, I get to put up Harry Potter posters in my office - I probably couldn't do that if I was a barrister or an accountant. I don't think any of my students have read any of my books, but they think it's pretty cool that I'm a published writer.

What feedback have you received from readers?
It's lovely to get any feedback from readers, and I've been lucky enough to receive some really nice comments. I think my favourite was from a young reader who was very indignant that Rebecca seemed to get away with something bad she did at the end of the first book (sorry, I'm trying to avoid plot spoilers) and then told me exactly what should happen to Rebecca in the second book! Most people say, 'I liked the first book, when does the second one come out?' and I feel really guilty that I haven't finished it yet.

You recently were awarded the Ethel Turner Prize, what was that experience like?
I was thrilled to discover I was on the short-list for the award, but I honestly didn't think I'd win because all the other books were so good. When they told me that I'd won, I went into shock. I was a nervous wreck at the awards night, because I was terrified I'd trip over on stage or forget my speech or do something equally embarrassing (and then I did forget my speech). Now that the news has sunk in, I feel very honoured. I do feel a tiny bit more confident as a writer. Maybe it will help me write the new book a bit faster . . .

Remember you can enter the competition to win a personally signed copy of this novel when you follow this link.

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