I’ve been anticipating this interview with Deanna Raybourn; friend of The Mitford Society, massive Mitty enthusiast and most importantly, a New York Times bestselling author! I’ve been racking my brain, wondering what I could ask her (that she hasn’t been asked already) and I came up with a list of questions that would require detailed answers. Some Mitford related, some about writing fiction etc. Surprisingly, given her busy schedule, she replied promptly- within 24 hrs-which puts most to shame! Read on for her informative advice on getting published, her favourite subjects and which Mitford girl she loves most of all…
What authors influence your work and what made you decide to write historical fiction? Can you name your earliest influences (i.e. books/authors/films)?
I honestly don’t remember a time I wasn’t making up stories. I know in childhood I was absolutely enthralled with Marie Antoinette, Sherlock Holmes, the Scarlet Pimpernel—and as a teenager I loved Anya Seton and Daphne du Maurier, Victoria Holt, and Agatha Christie. When it was time for college I majored in English and history because I was planning to write. I just love the sense of escape to another time and place that comes with historical fiction; I love delving into memoirs and letters to find out what people were thinking and doing. Most of all, I love finding the connections between “us” and “them”, the things that are universal to everyone, no matter when and where you live.
What is your favourite era and what draws you to this?
I have several pet time periods, but right now I’m immersed in the 1920s. The series I’m currently working on is set immediately after WWI, and I’ve absolutely fallen in love with the era—I’m a sucker for a little cultural revolution, and the 1920s saw an astonishing amount of change. Tracking the evolution of fashion, of language, of map boundaries, it’s all exhilarating. I’m always intrigued by periods that marked a shift in women’s roles in particular, and the 1920s were one of the most significant in that respect. The Great War really closed the book on the Victorian ideal of the hearth angel and opened up an entirely new world for women as voters, as workers, as people in their own right instead of decorative appendages.
Can you describe your journey in getting published, how many rejections did you receive before a publisher said yes?
I wrote my first novel at twenty-three, then spent fourteen years getting rejection letters before I sold my first novel—I never stopped to count how many. I wrote six or seven books in that time, several of which made the rounds of publishers, none of which sold. I finally took some excellent advice from my agent and stopped writing for a year. I just read. By the end of that time, I looked at the stack of books I’d read, and I realized they all had common threads running through them. They were historical with elements of mystery and romance, they had delightful little surprises, and they were British. That was a blueprint for the book I needed to write, so I started putting together things I loved—Victorian London, aristocrats, Gypsies, poisons, ravens—and at the end of it, I had SILENT IN THE GRAVE. It took us two years to find a publisher, but when we did, we sold three books at one time. I haven’t looked back since!
What is the best piece of writing advice you ever received?
Write the book you want to read. The books you read for pleasure are the books that inform your taste and shape your perspective. Those are the books that tell you who you are as a writer. The worse piece of advice is “write what you know”. I think it limits fledgling writers who take it far too literally. We are creatures of imagination. It’s alright to go and find things out or to conjure them out of thin air if you want to write about them. You don’t have to write only the things you’ve experienced personally.
Are you a full time writer? And how long did it take before you could achieve this?
I am a full-time writer, but I’m also part of a two-income household. I quit teaching in order to have a baby and write full-time, and it took eleven years for me to get published—fourteen years after I wrote my first novel!
When did you become interested in the Mitford girls and what started this interest?
I honestly can’t remember when I first heard of them, but I know the love was really kindled when I saw the 2001 PBS miniseries adaptation of LOVE IN A COLD CLIMATE and THE PURSUIT OF LOVE. That was when I started digging further into their lives and realized that, as interesting as Nancy Mitford’s writing might be, the real Mitford stories were even more enthralling. That’s when I started reading letters, collected biographies, anything that would tell me more.
Who is your favourite Mitford girl?
I have a very soft spot for Debo. There are interesting parallels to the Queen Mother’s life—lively girl marries a second son expecting a pleasant life and through tragedy gets thrust into a much more demanding role. They both rose admirably to the occasion, I think. I am a fan of Nancy’s also, although I think she must have been far too sophisticated and sharp to be really friendly with. And I think Pamela is the most delightfully mysterious. I like her quiet devotion to the things that interested her even if they might seem small in comparison to her sisters’ lives.
Who is your least favourite Mitford girl?
A tie between Jessica and Diana, although I think Decca was a gifted, unflinching writer. They had the courage of their convictions, but there was a fair bit of collateral damage that came along with that. I find Unity deeply interesting and tragic. Having said that, I still think these three are far more intriguing than most people.
And last but not least, if you could swap lives with any of the Mitfords who would it be?
Debo! The reclamation of Chatsworth was an unspeakable amount of work, but it must have been great fun as well. When you read her essays on the subject and look at how far the estate has come, it’s incredibly apparent how much effort and how many wonderful ideas when into it. Plus, all those forgotten treasures they unearthed! There’s a shivery sort of delight that comes from thinking about forcing open an elderly cupboard to find a bit of fabulous porcelain or a tiara no one remembered. Recovering those objects must have been tremendously exciting—rather like having a lost museum to bring back to order. I’m also tremendously interested in the business aspects of running a stately home, even a ruin. I’ve visited Bolton Abbey, where I had one of the best meals I ate in that corner of England, incidentally. I was struck by how thoughtfully everything had been arranged. It seemed as if the family, the managers, the designers, everyone had done what they could to preserve the magnificent ruins of the Abbey but also to make it as pleasurable as possible for the visiting public. It must be a thankless task to balance all the competing interests of environment, public, posterity, bureaucracy, but what an interesting one!