Ladies Like Us: An Interview with Alena Kate Pettitt

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Years ago I wrote an article for The Fertile Fact, listing all of Nancy’s pet hates, had she lived in today’s fast-paced, non-U society. It was good fun, and I hope it was received in that light. However, it did and does beg the question: what would Nancy have thought of today’s youth, and where would she have fitted into today’s society? Of course her books are still widely read, but they offer a glimpse into a forgotten age when manners were important, conversation was a skill to be honed, and one put on what she called ‘the shop front’ (her public face/persona). As such, when Alena Kate Pettitt, etiquette guru and founder of The Darling Academy, contacted me I was intrigued. She posted me a copy of her delightful book, Ladies Like Us, concealed in layers of pink tissue paper as fine as silk with all the bells and whistles you’d expect from a woman who has posted the very same parcel to Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge. (Sorry Kate, your mother appeared in Nancy’s list on The Fertile Fact!)

What inspired you to write a modern day etiquette book?

I have always been interested in etiquette and as a young girl used to dream of marrying Prince William (sad but true), the Cinderella fantasy captured my imagination. Being somewhat of a self-starter I read voraciously on what set “the set” apart from the rest of us. My mother used to subscribe to Tatler, likewise she was enamoured with Princess Diana, and so her influence in addition to my childhood dream was enough to start a lifelong fascination with the peerage. I wanted to learn all there was about this alternative universe of beautiful, privileged people. Which sounds crass but they do have that je ne sais quoi that most of us identify in their countenance and lifestyle. It is an unusual confidence not owned by many. Happily, during my teens due to a family marriage I entered a glittering social setting and quickly had to learn the ropes of how things were done, what was said and importantly – what was not. It took me another fifteen years to learn the greater lesson that it is more about what is in your heart than what you show to the world that makes you a pro at handling yourself in society. In the Mitfords days there were silent codes of behaviour and what you would say in place of common words that would set you apart, but as we all know, the U like to change these rules frequently. Social climbing is a dirty little secret and common hobby of the middle classes: everyone is out to do better, I just have the guts to admit it. Having read them all, I soon became frustrated with the offerings of etiquette books that told you how to do XYZ but never divulge as to why. You can teach a monkey to have a polite afternoon tea but if he doesn’t believe he is equal to, and understand his company, he will always be a monkey. No one wants to spend time with monkeys, such curious creatures.

Etiquette is less about what you do in a clinical sense in order to be seen to be doing it, and more about having your heart in the right place and learning to be at ease in your surroundings, as well as in the company of others. Whether you are dining at McDonalds or in a beautiful restaurant in Mayfair, etiquette and knowing how to present your best self is of the utmost importance. Etiquette helps you with navigating the rules, but the true prize is learning how to cultivate elegance. I hope the advice in Ladies Like Us has achieved that.

Judging from your interests, ladies from the past (such as the Mitfords) influence you. What is it about those ladies that you admire and perhaps wish to emulate?

Oh goodness, where do I start? Let’s go with the most obvious reason. I have recently identified that the majority of the women I admire are ones from “old money families”, or frequently move in such circles. Meaning that they have lived a life of privilege and wealth but they haven’t let the money define them. Many of them are held against strongest expectations or are consistently scrutinised but manage to hold it together, regardless. Having that steely determination to paint on that smile despite what is going on at home speaks volumes of a woman’s strength. The women I most admire have gone on to run the country, write novels, or marry into a dynasty that requires a lot of self-sacrifice. If they’ve married into or made money for themselves they do more with their time than simply shop or wish to validate themselves curating a “brand” on social media. In our generation, we are constantly bombarded with “role models” who remove their clothes in exchange for flashy brand new Range Rovers and footballer’s mansions. That’s not to say that the women who inspire me were complete angels, or didn’t care about the finer things, but they played their cards close to their chests and had a determination and sense of duty lost on most women today.  We live in a wealth obsessed society and the fashion is to flaunt that wealth with “things” rather than keeping hold of their sense of class and dignity. The women I admire know what really matters when you strip away the trinkets. Fool’s gold isn’t something that interests me. I want role models to challenge me to be better, be better educated, to do more for those around me – not simply to buy more things or become famous. My role models inspire me to choose quality over quantity in all things.

Which modern day vices irk you the most?

Chewing gum! Disgusting and unnecessary. I think it is the most classless and wholly vulgar thing anyone can do. Need to freshen your breath? Have a mint. However, smacking on gum and making me listen to the “pleasure” of it? No thank you. Second to this is standing to close to me in a queue. The U love their personal space, please respect it. Making your way into my personal space renders you a bumbling idiot in my book and I will be cursing you under my breath. Third, men who spit in the street. Which imbecile let them out of the zoo? Fourth, women who apply a full face of make up on public transport…. I’m realising that a lot of things irk me.

Which modern day heroine (or hero) do you think is a good example and positively Mitfordesque?

I tried to think of an intelligent and thought provoking answer, but if you are looking for my honest answer, it has to be Jilly Cooper. I love how she isn’t afraid to shock and looks at people in the most brutal of ways. Her book Class remains one of my favourites, she says what we all think and exposes the dynamics of the British class system with such accuracy. As much as people would hate to admit it, our class system is very much alive, and things haven’t really changed since she wrote that exposé in the late 70’s. She knows people and what makes them tick. Most people cannot stand her “type”, but I’d gladly crown her queen of my tribe. Given what she writes about, you’d think her trashy but from what I’ve heard on the grapevine she is a real lady. What more can you ask for? Talent, wit, brains, confidence and underneath it all, honesty and kindness.

We live but miles from each other, it takes all my strength to refrain from casually popping by asking for a cup of sugar and to have a jolly good laugh about life in town and country. Sadly, I realise she’d probably think me too lower-middle class to visit her, then I’d hotly argue that I actually consider myself middle-middle. Ha!

 

Ladies Like Us is available in paperback and on Kindle. 

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An Interview with Louisa Treger, Author of The Lodger

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Louisa Treger’s stunning debut novel, The Lodger, is an account of Dorothy Richardson and her affair with H.G. Wells. Louisa has very kindly answered some questions for The Mitford Society to mark the UK release of The Lodger. You can visit Louisa’s website here, or ‘like’ her author page on Facebook by clicking here.

How long have you been writing for?

I’ve been writing for most of my life. I was the sort of kid who always kept a diary and scribbled short stories and plays. But it wasn’t until I was in my late twenties that I started writing in a serious, disciplined way.

Clearly Dorothy Richardson and the Bloomsbury set inspire you, but what led you to turn her story into a novel that reads like fiction and not a traditional biography?

I was fascinated by the emotional lives of these characters, and so I wanted to make use of the extra licence fiction affords in order to explore this aspect. What did Dorothy feel like betraying her oldest friend (HG Wells’s wife, Jane) by sleeping with her husband? Or realising she was bisexual at a time when this was absolutely forbidden? Biographical fiction is a genre I am strongly drawn to, because there’s a framework of interesting facts on which to hang the story, yet enough wiggle room to be creative.

Did you research her story as though you were planning a biography, or did you to take liberties with the plot and embellish some things? Is it entirely factual?

My novel is a melding of fact and fiction, broadly following the known biographical outline of Dorothy’s life. I did take some liberties with the facts, and I have talked about this at greater length in the Afterword to the novel. For example, in real life, Dorothy’s friendship with HG Wells developed into a love affair over a ten year period, but I felt that narrative impetus would be lost if I stuck to this time scheme. And so I fast forwarded and had him seduce her during the course of one spring. There are several episodes in Dorothy’s life she was coy, or utterly silent about, as though they were too painful, or shaming, to be voiced. Most striking among these is her mother’s suicide, which she never referred to directly in any surviving writing. Another is the sexual nature of her relationship with Veronica Leslie Jones. Dorothy was never explicit about this; she simply referred to nights spent together. These omissions – or repressions – formed a significant part of my novel. In fact, bringing them to life was one of the most interesting parts of writing about Dorothy’s life.

Biographies written as historical fiction were a huge trend last year. How easy was it for you to get an agent and get published? Can you describe your journey as a writer?

I always wanted to take the traditional path to publication. It was a long journey! Rejection letters from both agents and publishers were part of it. I’m a living example that persistence pays off! Signing up with a good agent was a turning point. His editorial input transformed The Lodger, shaping it into something that publishers were willing to consider. To tell you the truth, I don’t feel that my struggle has ended with publication of The Lodger. I am always striving to be a better writer.

What is your next novel about?

My next novel is about a girl who was part of the Kinderstransport – the rescue mission that brought thousands of refugee Jewish children to England from Nazi occupied Europe. They left their families to go to the care of strangers, in a foreign country whose language they only had the barest grasp of. They didn’t know what would happen to them, or if they would see their parents again. The novel describes how the girl and her descendants adjust to English life.

And last but not least, I know you’re a fan of the Mitfords. Who is your favourite? And whose story would you like to adapt into a novel?

My favourite was Jessica. She was funny and irreverent; she was the most rebellious of the sisters and she was also very brave. She embraced communism and rallied against racial discrimination, she eloped with her second cousin, Esmond Romilly, and married him despite her family’s disapproval, she became a crusading journalist in the USA. She was rather inept at domestic tasks, which I find endearing. She hated housework, rarely cooked and raised her children in a spirit of “benign neglect”.

Church of Marvels by Leslie Parry

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A ravishing first novel set in the vibrant, tumultuous underworld of late-19th-century New York, about four young outsiders whose lives become entwined over the course of one fateful night.

New York City, 1895, the island of Manhattan is a melting pot of culture, much like modern day NYC, without the seedier aspects being swept underground and exploited as ‘niche’ to those who wish to indulge. My great great great grandfather, David Saqui, was in Manhattan around this time, the son (and black sheep) of Italian-Cuban parents, working as a singing waiter. I know he grew up on Chelsea’s ‘golden mile’ in an apartment above his father’s cigar and port wine shop. So, this era of life in New York has always fascinated me. Set during the Gilded Age, this is the city from an outsider’s point of view.

It is on a warm night that Sylvan Threadgill, a young night soiler finds a newborn baby girl whilst cleaning out the privies behind the tenements. An orphan himself, Sylvan takes pity on the baby and is determined to find out where she belongs. Odile Church is part of a sideshow act in a circus that has long lost its magic. She and her twin sister, Belle, were raised on the stage, performing in their mother’s theatre, the Church of Marvels. The theatre burns to the ground, and their mother, Friendship Church, perishes along with it, and Belle escapes to Manhattan. Alphie wakes up in Blackwell’s Lunatic Asylum, the last thing she remembers is blood on the floor and her Italian mother-in-law screaming. She had once been a prostitute and a penny-Rembrandt, cleaning up drunken revelers, but now she’s the wife of Anthony, an undertaker from a respectable home. Belle was committed alongside her, and when she coughs up a pair of scissors, Alphie knows this young woman harbours a dark secret that will alter the course of both of their lives…

Leslie Parry offers a tight-knit cast of characters, luckless and destitute, and striving for acceptance, whether it is in love, in their profession or in society. She shows us the secret worlds of children living in the gutters and tunnels, underage prostitutes, the filthy tenements on the Lower East Side and the regular haunts of misfits. Her knowledge of the streets, the undergrounds and the shortcuts throughout Manhattan and Brooklyn, is impressive. Each twist and turn, the rattling of the carriages, the stench of the river and the hustle and bustle of Coney Island, leaves us breathless. The freaks of the circus, the language of the guttersnipes, the imagined scenarios and flashbacks, are crass and startling. As is the barbaric treatment of the inmates of Blackwell’s Lunatic Asylum, and the desperation of unmarried, pregnant women, suffering shame and selling their babies.

Expertly written and jarringly realistic to the plight of the misfit, Church of Marvels will stay with you long after the show is over.

Four Sisters: The Lost Lives of the Romanov Grand Duchesses. An interview with Helen Rappaport

I originally reviewed Four Sisters for The Lady:

Much has been written about the Romanovs – fact, fiction and everything in between. The four Grand Duchesses – Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia – have often featured behind the scenes in biographies of their parents, Tsar Nicholas II and Alexandra.

Although this is familiar terrain in terms of historical biographies, the author achieves a rare feat in depicting the Grand Duchesses as complex and fascinating individuals in their own right. Meticulously researched and filled with new information, this book presents the untold and gripping stories of their lives for the first time in print.

 

How long have you been writing for? And can you tell The Mitford Society a bit about your journey to becoming published?

I’ve been writing history since the early 1990s. It began when I was at university – I enjoyed writing history essays as part of my Russian Special Studies course. Later, working as a freelance editor and researcher for various publishers including OUP and Blackwell, I was asked to contribute various short entry items to history books and encyclopaedias and from there, as my editing work morphed into a full time job as an outhouse desk editor for Blackwell, I began thinking more and more about moving into writing history full time. I had spent a lot of time editing – and effectively fact checking and even re-writing – a lot of academic history books and decided to take the plunge and write my own . But it was a huge gamble. I was offered the chance to write three US reference books for the university/college market on Stalin, Queen Victoria and women social reformers – and although the money was poor it served as a wonderful grounding and a springboard into my first trade title in 2006. I count myself incredibly fortunate that since 1999 I have published 11 books, with a 12th underway, at a time when the trade has been shrinking alarmingly and when history and biography in particular have been squeezed very hard. But it has been very hard work – an effective treadmill – not by choice but because my advances were not large enough to allow me the luxury of several years to write a book.

What inspired you to become a historical biographer and what draws you to your area of expertise?

I think it is the detective in me and my love of genealogy and family history that fuel my love of real lives, real stories. There is nothing I enjoy more than chasing down the facts, the clues, the small details of a human life that might have been overlooked or forgotten. It is such a joy to be able to shed new light on a piece of history or someone’s life from the past. I get so much pleasure from the satisfaction of tracking down new sources about my subjects that I have absolutely no desire to make it up – to turn to fiction or historical fiction. Many people urge me to do so but my feeling is that I would not want to write historical fiction unless I could write it better than I write history – and I would miss the thrill of the chase.

How do you go about planning your research and what is the general time frame before you start writing the manuscript? Can you tell us a bit about that process?

Well research can be a very unpredictable, amorphous thing and I never plan it rigidly timewise, though I do write lots of lists of objectives and have a rough schedule. In principle I keep on searching and researching right up to the moment I send my text off for editing. I usually ike to get a good body of research under my belt before I start writing, but it’s impossible to set a hard and fast rule, as quite often what happens is that the book starts writing itself in my head – at night in particular and I start jotting things down – sentences, paragraphs – quite randomly, that I want to come back to. But in the end I always find I reach a natural point at which I have a real need to start writing, to get something down on paper. In the past I have written the closing paragraph of a book long before starting it! I usually research for about 9 months and write for the same amount of time, but it depends on the schedule. I researched and wrote Beautiful For Ever very fast, in five months, between two bigger books. There’s a lot of cross over in terms of gathering material – I am always picking up new nuggets of information from seemingly unrelated sources. Even though I have now moved on to book no 12 I am still effectively researching the Romanovs, as I want to keep up to speed with any new evidence, material, photographs that come to light and new discussions about them. So in fact I juggle all my past books in my head, as it is important to keep in touch with the material – if anything because I might get asked to do a radio or TV talking head about it! I am constantly switching historical hats and having to refresh my memory of previous books because of this. For me it is really important to stay in touch with one’s subjects. Some writers, I know, get bored and detach and move on to the next subject without a backward glance, but in the case of the Romanov sisters in particular, I know I shall stay very close to them.

How did you become interested in the lives of the Grand Duchesses?

It’s ironic really, as I had long resisted all the schmaltz and romanticism of the Romanov story. Despite being a Russianist and loving Russian history I had deliberately avoided the topic of the last Imperial Family because I felt it was too heavily loaded with hagiography and myth. But once I had decided to write Ekaterinburg which is specifically about the last two weeks of the family’s life before their murder, I fell in love with the girls and developed a sense of mission about telling their story. I felt they had been overlooked for far too long, and too easily lumped together as a bland collective. I wanted to give them back their individual identities.

Why did you write a combined biography on the four girls as opposed to, say, a single biography on Anastasia?

I am absolutely totally and stubbornly resistant to Anastasia as a single subject. She has been much mythologized and too often, even now, when I give talks the first question people ask is did she get away. No. They all died!! I wish people would accept this and think more about the real Romanov sisters . Any book about Anastasia would have to take in the false claimants and I absolutely will not waste precious words writing about people who were frauds, rather than the real Anastasia. So no, no individual biography of any sister is viable really. It would be too difficult in terms of sources. They girls lived very protected lives, they did not pour their hearts and souls out on to the pages of their diaries and letters (those of course, that have survived – they destroyed many of them). What we have is always fairly circumspect. They died too young to make it possible to tell a full and rounded life. There have been one or two slim, Russian-language hagiographies about Olga the eldest but they suffer, as a lot of Russian sources on the girls do, from being over-reverential and uncritical. There is also the added problem that there is no scandal or gossip that one can use to ‘sex up’ the story. They were a devoted and loyal unit and I think it’s best they are remembered and written about very much as that – as Four Sisters.

Is there another set of historical sisters who capture your fascination?

HR: Well of course the Romanov girls’ mother Alexandra was one of four sisters (a fifth died young) and I say a little about that in the opening chapter of my book. So yes, the four Hesse sisters are fascinating and they have been written about, singly and collectively. But for me there is something so special – so touching and unique about the four Romanov sisters.

Are you currently working on a project? What can we expect in the future?

HR: I’m now working on a book for the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution in 2017. It’s called Caught in the Revolution: Petrograd 1917 and it’s going to be an account of the city that year, from a different angle entirely – from the point of view of the British, American, French and other foreign nationals who were in the city and witnessed what happened.

Who is your favourite Mitford girl and why?

HR: well it has to be Nancy. I gobbled up most of her book in my teens and twenties and am now planning a concerted re-read. The Pursuit of Love is top of my bedside pile right now! But I also greatly admire her historical titles.

Porchey Carnarvon’s Two Duped Wives: An Interview

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The Earl of Grantham’s stately pile Downton Abbey is as famous as any of the characters of the hit TV series but fans of the show might be interested to learn of Highclere Castle’s (the real Downton) other storyline which rivals any of the plots Julian Fellowes dreams up! I was intrigued by the story which first appeared in the Sunday Express so I decided to contact William Cross, the author of Porchey Carnarvon’s Two Duped Wives to inquire further about this fascinating, and relatively unknown, back story.

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First of all William can you explain to The Mitford Society how you became interested in the lives of Tillie and Catherine?

My interest in aristocratic women of the past spans several projects. Tilly Losch and Catherine Wendell have been hovering around my study walls over the several years I‘ve spent researching and writing about the occupants of Highclere Castle.

These two women are first mentioned in “The Life and Secrets of Almina Carnarvon”, my full length biography from 2011 of Almina Wombwell, the  indefatigable Fifth Countess of Carnarvon, of Old King Tut fame. Afterall, they were married to Almina’s only son, Henry ( better known as Porchey Carnarvon, who was the Sixth Earl of Carnarvon) : making Almina their mother-in-law.

My informants who offered up stories about Almina also  swept in tales about  her son’s two wives. Having slavishly written up Almina,  and  revealed her untold story to the world, Tilly and Catherine were relegated somewhat to bit players. Since I was left with many facts, anecdotes and testimonies about these two remarkable ( albeit very different) women it was inevitable,  When I decided to continue the Carnarvon-Highclere  story with a follow up title to “Secrets”, that I would hone in on  them again as the two Sixth Countesses of Carnarvon, and finally give them headline billing.

What research did you undertake in writing your book, and how long did the creative process take?

Research is a long drawn out ritual, it’s an art. It’s the part of the whole process whose  sum total makes a book credible or not. For the book on Tilly and Catherine it was a mix of culling from hundreds of printed sources in books, especially diaries and memoirs from the timelines of these woman,  delving into newspapers, journals  and  plundering archives in Britain and America. The British Library and National Archives  provided a good deal of the material.  In America the librarians and archivists holding Tilly’s papers at Binghamton University, New York State and Catherine’s family records at the Portsmouth Athenaeum in New Hampshire  were  helpful  and supportive. In the USA I was blessed in having help from another writer  named Joyce Sachs ( the wife of a relative of Tilly )  who is also currently working on highlighting Tilly’s legacy ( for a play ) and  who is  hugely  knowledgeable about the content of Tilly’s letters and diaries ( including those at Binghamton University written in German-  Tilly’s mother tongue).

I had the assistance of Diana Fitzpatrick,  a friend in America who acted as proxy researcher at Portsmouth and went through dozen of boxes of Wendell papers on my behalf. I was also helped by George Jackson a distinguished journalist and  ballet critic in the USA ( who knew Tilly and her dance history )  and Charles  W Wendell  a member of the Catherine’s wider family  carried out some recognisance work for me on the ground at places in New York associated with Catherine’s parents and other relatives.   It helped that Charles was a notable figure in the Holland Society of New York : the Wendells are, of course,  of Dutch origin!

The people  I’d previously interviewed for my biography of Almina were seen again including her godson, who lived under Almina’s roof for 30 years and knew Catherine and Porchey interactions extremely well. I also interviewed  several  new people including a well informed octogenarian who spent his entire life at close quarters to Highclere and knew the family over several generations.  Some equally aged  members of the British peerage replied to enquiries providing additional details  from their own memories of knowing both women and the notorious Porchey. I also carried out site visits to places associated with Catherine’s childhood years in Hertfordshire.  I even made a pilgrimage to Catherine’s grave.

After sketching an outline I tend to draft chapters as I research. As this book had a good head start it was completed in about a year, including the final stages of  shaping and editing and tracking down images.  My book on Almina took three years to reach  the same stage.  The End Notes in the book set out every detail of the research sources used.

Why did you write a combined biography on the two women as opposed to a single biography of Tillie?

The book is sub- titled “ The Two Duped Wives of Porchey Carnarvon”. The focus of much of the book is  on their relationship/ marriage to  The Sixth Earl and what these women had to endure as Porchey’s  Countesses.  At the outset they were both in the same boat of having to find a husband who was better of than they were but the individual stories of the two women  ( including I hope their indomitable spirit)   is adequately covered in the book and their lives before and after  their  time  at Highclere.  These women were  great survivors and they successfully turned their lives around without Porchey.

There is room for a full length biography of Tilly Losch: she was a very accomplished  star of stage and film  in her time. Rumours circulate in USA. I am told that the references in the late Ann Marie Koller’s long dormant biography of Tilly are being updated by her daughter for publication before the year is up.

We’re aware of the phenomenon that is Downton Abbey, and the more recent book on Catherine written by the Countess of Carnarvon, how did that impact your project? Has it been a blessing or a curse?

Downton Abbey has shone a light on many forgotten stories from the past. But Downton is still essentially fiction.  It is an enjoyable romp.  The trouble with the tales outlined  in “ Real Downton Abbey” books  is that these are often just not a  full reflection on how it all was, that’s worse than fiction since the parts left out  are among the most  intriguing, albeit controversial and the family would rather these secrets weren’t disclosed . Those behind the  titles do NOT  offer the complete picture of  life stories of the Fifth and Sixth Earls and Countesses of Carnarvon.  My researches  on Almina and Catherine and Tilly ( and on the two Fourth Countesses  Lady Evelyn Stanhope and Elsie Howard ) and their husbands and families all predate Downton  and I have undoubtedly sold copies of my books on the back of Downton’s publicity machine and its great popularity.  My  take on the Carnarvons is  offered to readers in good faith, warts and all and not to cash in on a TV series.  I hope the legal deposit copies of my books ( and my working papers)  will  stand as a credible history of these people concerned long, long after Downton has ended its run.

Tillie’s name is always appearing in the endless volumes of Mitfordiana but if it weren’t for Downton do you feel the stories of these women would have otherwise been forgotten?

Tilly Losch  is enjoying a renaissance at present, not only because of Downton  The coverage given by Binghamton University in their Newsletter last summer and on their website  is certainly a Downton Abbey spin off.  But she is in the limelight again in her very own right. You can’t keep a girl like Tilly down.  Her famous Tanz der Hande ( Dance of the Hands , and can be see on You Tube )   together with many stunning  photographs of her early days dancing for the Max Reinhardt Company in her native Austria  is the subject of an exhibition currently running in Vienna  ( until 13 March, 2014  at the Bonartes Gallery ).  This  celebrates a notable period of pioneering dance history. The show has an enchanting catalogue of images of  this most stunning creature and her fellow dancer  Hedy Pfundmayr.  I’d love to see  the exhibition  staged  in London and in the USA.  Perhaps the Tate Gallery  or Barnes Museum in  Philadelphia ( or even Binghamton University ) who all  have examples of Tilly’s paintings ( Binghamton have many)   could think about its public appeal. Perhaps Highclere coffers could offer sponsorship for staging a celebration of Tilly,  the amazing dancing Countess of Carnarvon.

It is no surprise that Tilly ( a blinding star  on the London and New York stage and with several films in Hollywood )  was seen by  the great Society photographer Cecil Beaton ( and others)  as one of the most beautiful women of her time.  As to Tilly’s links with the Mitfords, especially her fling with Tom Mitford, close friendship with Nancy and her falling out with Diana ( over Tilly’s treatment of her first husband, the poet  Edward James, to whom Diana was devoted), my book reflects on all on these overlaps and much more.  I have also recently completed a short tribute entitled “ Tilly Losch ‘ Schlagobers’ Sweet Fragments From Her Life.”  I will add more in years to come.  I doubt I will ever get closure with Tilly.

I for one will carry on writing about such extraordinary woman ( and some men ) whose stories are  less well known, hence my work on the Morgan dynasty of Tredegar House, South Wales which not got an iota to do with Downton Abbey.

Are you currently working on a project? What can we expect in the future?

Yes, several new books in progress for 2014, including  a final look at the Evan, Viscount Tredegar and before that a book on a  gay witch hunt in Abergavenny, South Wales, in 1942.   I am also working on “Rosemary and Alastair: ‘Everything is More Beautiful Because We’re Doomed’ ” ,  the tragic story of the daughter and son of the great Millicent, Duchess of Sutherland.

William Cross is offering readers the chance to purchase his book for £10 (price includes p&p). This offer will end on 15th April. Click here for details. 

 

An interview with Helen Peppe, author of ‘Pigs Can’t Swim’

The Mitford Society had the pleasure of reviewing Helen Peppe’s memoir Pigs Can’t Swim. (Click here to read the review) Even though she’s very busy promoting her book, I managed to catch up with Helen for a chat about Pigs Can’t Swim and even more surprisingly, given her hectic schedule, she replied with very detailed answers. Coming from a large family I’m sure Helen could see why we Mitty fans were keen to get her perspective on Life’s Great Unfairness…

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For those who are yet to read Pigs Can’t Swim can you tell us what inspired you to write this memoir?

I was writing a different memoir (Naked, Finding My Feet), one about losing weight and food issues, when Debra Marquart, author of Growing Up in a Horizontal World, suggested I write a few personal essays to explore the source of my food issues: childhood. I wrote what is now “The Killing House” chapter, and then I remembered about Waterboro and wrote the “Pigs Can’t Swim” chapter. I sent the personal essays to Debra, we discussed them, and then I couldn’t force my mind back to my original memoir. I kept writing one chapter after another until I had 300 pages. I wrote them all in six months. Once I got the memories on paper, I then went back and shaped everything and removed details and stories about some of siblings and mother that would have hurt them and/or their children to know. For these ethical reasons, I whittled the book down to about 200 pages. When Da Capo bought PIGS, they wanted more of my younger years included, so I added several chapters: the exploding pressure cooker and the puppy who bit me. What’s interesting about PIGS is that my father claims he can remember nothing, including the puppy biting me. I have a deep scar on my eye and nose, and he was embarrassed when I showed him the scar. One of my mentors commented,  “Seems like a parent should remember his daughter getting hurt so that she needed stitches and none were given.” He claims not to remember the molestation either. Forgetfulness is a common coping tool.

I never intended to publish PIGS. It was more prewriting for my weight loss memoir, but the book became my MFA thesis, and then my husband (yup, the same Eric) and my sister who-holds-grudges-longer-than-God encouraged me to get an agent. So, I did, but before anything became public, I took out even more scenes that might hurt my parents or my siblings, and I changed identifying characteristics. I hope PIGS helps people to see the chaos of their own childhoods with less judgement and more humor. Very few people have delightful beginnings. Growing up is HARD.

If anyone reads PIGS and is disturbed by the animal slaughter and abuse, then maybe they will consider not eating so many of them. That will be a positive outcome for animals everywhere.

What creative process did you undertake i.e. how easily could you draw on your childhood memories and how long did it take you to compile the story?

Because I have many life-long issues due to my childhood, especially food and sex, many of those memories are always right there in my brain armed to defeat my resolve to banish them. Our brains like to hold on to traumatic events and flash vivid images into our minds’ eyes when triggered by touch and smell etc. To assist these, I found old pictures, I went back to where I grew up (ugh), and I talked to my sister who-holds-grudges-longer- than-God. Her grudge holding power means she is also a holder of an amazing amount of detail. And the book took about 6 months to write the first draft.

In the style of Nancy Mitford’s postwar novels The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate, did you ever consider writing Pigs Can’t Swim as a fictional book loosely inspired by your real life?

I did consider fiction. Just as Alexandra Fuller and Sue Williams Silverman considered it. However, fiction didn’t work for any of us. The stories lost power because they gained psychologic distance. At the end, before it was published, I asked Eric, my publisher and others if now that I’d written this as truthfully as I could, could we market it as fiction, and they all agreed it wouldn’t sell as well. I also considered a nom de plume, but was shot down.

Did you originally intend to conceal the identities of your many siblings? And on that note what has their reaction been like?

Yes, always. I wanted to conceal the identity of everyone. I even tried to conceal the location, and I purposely left off the last names of the dead people in the cemetery.

I used the descriptive names based on how my parents sometimes referred to the kids. My hope was that everyone might have a sister of poor choices etc and then the siblings could become anyone’s siblings, sort of like an everyman story.

Jessica Mitford remarked that growing up in a large family makes one accustomed to Life’s Great Unfairness. Would you be inclined agree? And what did it teach you?

YES! Everything ALWAYS was unfair. And the unfairness bit at me all the time so that I constantly thought things like, “When I get out of here I am not going to have a husband because I don’t want anyone ever telling me what to do again!” Or, “When I have money, I am going to eat all the chocolate I want.” As you know I failed on the first resolve, but the second one is a success.

For the aspiring writers in The Mitford Society can you describe your publishing journey? Was it easy getting an agent and at any point did you feel like giving up?

Actually, getting the agent wasn’t difficult. I got lucky. My MFA program has agents come in and speak during the last residency, and the agent who spoke at mine loved one of the chapters I’d given her. It was “Bus Number Two.” The part after that took a year, however, because Hurricane Sandy arrived in New York and slowed publishing houses down. Each house took a long time to read. But I never felt like giving up. I am not a giving up type of person, which is why I annoyed my family so much. Just as I tried to convey in PIGS,  I really can be a pest and a nag.

Will you write a follow up to Pigs Can’t Swim?

Yes, I am working on it now. Originally, I had a different project in mind, but so many people want to know how I got out and how my childhood affected me that I’ve decided to do an honest-to-goodness sequel.

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Helen Peppe

Helen Peppe is a professional writer and photographer (primarily equine). The former editor of Eastern Equerry and Wordplay Magazine, her short stories, articles, and photographs have appeared in a myriad of anthologies, books, and magazines, including Practical Horseman, Equus, American Trakehner, Arabian Horse Times, Dog Fancy, Dog World, Dressage Today, Equine Journal, The Horse, Lynx Eye, Mused Literary Review, Cats Magazine, and The Good Men Project. Several of her short stories and photographs appear in text books and educational media. She is the author of the limited edition Live on Stage: A History of the State Theater and creator of the Maine Stable Guide, published annually 1995-2005.

Click here to visit Helen Peppe’s official website

 

The Winter Garden part two

An Interview with Jane Thynne

Why did you choose to portray the Nazi bridal schools as a work of fiction as opposed to writing a biography on the bizarre ritual?

Probably because I love writing fiction! I came across the bride schools when I was researching my first Clara Vine novel, Black Roses, and I was looking closely at the lives of women under the Third Reich. I subsequently visited Schwanenwerder Island, where the Berlin bride school was based, and as soon as I saw it was just a few doors down from the Goebbels villa, an idea was born.

How did you gather your research for The Winter Garden?

Newspapers and women’s magazines of the time are very useful. There’s not much written about the bride schools, but for some reason photographs of young women exercising in gym slips seemed to be immensely popular with newspaper editors. I have also read a library full of non-fiction about Nazi Germany.

What inspired you to include Diana and Unity Mitford in the book?

How could I not! As soon as I began writing about an Anglo-German actress in 1930s Berlin, I knew the Mitfords would come into it. They are a huge interest for me – I’ve read everything all of them have written. The idea of the Germans trying to grapple with these eccentric upper class women and wondering if all English people were the same was just too funny for words. But that conflict also encapsulates something very deep about WWII, which was the Nazi regime’s fatal failure to understand British core values.

As a writer of mainstream novels, do you sense the market is becoming a lot more open to historical fiction which incorporates popular culture and figures from the inter-war era rather than expecting such topics to feature only in biography and academic books? (i.e. Z: A Novel and Mrs. Hemingway).

Definitely. The use of real people is very much in vogue, probably because readers like to feel they have learned something as well as being entertained. For this reason, I think writers bear a heavy responsibility to get the facts right when using historical characters. With the Nazi women, I was lucky because many of them wrote memoirs, letters and diaries. With the Mitfords, of course, it’s all there.

 Do you find this genre gives you a lot more freedom to manipulate (real life) characters and situations to accommodate your plot?

History is the furniture of my fiction, and I while would never move the furniture, it’s fine to look down the back of the sofa. I never alter historical events, and I feel pretty strongly that you shouldn’t. Even though it goes under the guise of fiction, people are going to take your historical background as fact, so you need to respect that. In the same way, with characters, I’ve always tried to use things they actually said. Goebbels diaries have been immensely helpful in that regard.

 Can you describe your journey to publication with the Clara Vine series?

I was lucky in that Black Roses was picked up very quickly by the wonderful Suzanne Baboneau at Simon & Schuster. When I told her I wanted to write a series, she commissioned more. Clara Vine has now sold to America, Canada and France, as well as to TV.

 Will there be a sequel?

A War of Flowers, set around the 1938 Munich crisis, comes out next year.

And last but not least: who is your favourite Mitford girl?

It has to be Nancy. She is both hilarious and subtle with a keen sense of the ridiculous that has been the hallmark of English novelists from Jane Austen and Dickens to P.G Wodehouse.

 

Sheila The Australian Ingenue who Bewitched British Society: part two

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I’m still feeling quite bedazzled by Sheila The Australian Ingenue who Bewitched British Society and I hope you enjoy this interview with the author Robert Wainwright. Thanks to those Mitties who sent in questions!

For those in The Mitford Society who haven’t read the book what inspired you to write about Sheila and when were you confident you had enough material to fill a book?

There were a few sentences in William Shawcross’s official biography of the Queen Mother which mentioned King George V’s demand that Bertie give up the Australian. A colleague of mine told me about it and suggested I have a look to see if we knew anything more about Sheila Loughborough. There was a brief mention in the Australian Dictionary of Biography but nothing more. So it became a challenge to me to uncover her story. I didn’t sign the publishing contract for six months, until I was convinced that there was enough information to produce a book.

Was it easy finding your source material and what steps did you take in sourcing the info?

I have been a journalist for more than 30 years and this search was undoubtedly the hardest I have done. All of her contemporaries are long dead. Needle in a haystack doesn’t do it justice. I bought 60 or more books, mostly biographies, simply to retrieve a line or two that mentioned her, visited archives in Edinburgh, Cambridge and London as well as getting access to the University of Texas where there were wartime letters she had sent to a friend. The only way of putting together a timeline was trawling through the British newspaper archive at Collindale as well as online archives for newspapers and magazines in the US, Australia and India. It was only at the end of the project that I was given access to her unpublished memoir which gave her a voice but leaves many questions unanswered.

Did anyone object to your using the letters from Princes Edward and Bertie? On the same note, did you come up against any objections as far as letters etc were concerned when writing the book?

No-one knew that I had seen them. They were in a box in the Scottish Archives, neatly folded among personal papers and clearly treasured. A Eureka moment. There is clearly other correspondence held at Windsor but they are regarded as private and therefore I was not given access.

When you had finally gathered enough info to construct a story how easy was it to piece together?

It was a giant jigsaw that had to be constructed and reconstructed as I checked material to try and be as accurate as possible. I am a journalist first and felt it very important that the book was a work of supported fact. I did not want to blur the boundaries with fiction and felt that it was better to leave a gap rather than fill it with assumption or worse.

I am now intrigued by Sheila’s unpublished memoir, following the success of your biography do you think it will be published?

I doubt the memoir will be published because it is unfinished and written over probably two decades. There is some beautiful writing in those pages but she was overly discreet and tended to downplay and even ignored aspects of her life that we would find intriguing. There are few people who can truly write their own biographies without censoring themselves.

Some reviews have found Sheila to be a frivolous product of the inter-war era. I thought she was an inspiring person. In your own words what makes Sheila a likeable heroine?

In spite of her obvious beauty she was understated. How many women of that time would have allowed themselves to be photographed in a glass jar or in their pyjamas on a windswept hill, let alone with her hair in spikes like Robert Smith from The Cure? I like her independent spirit and the ability to speak her mind, I love her sense of duty, either working for charity or as a volunteer nurse and the late life decision to become one of London’s first businesswomen. When you strip away the glamour, it is the story of an ordinary woman dealing with extraordinary issues: two wars and a depression, rearing children in a failed marriage, the death of a son and two husbands and always with her family forever on the other side of the world.

Do you have any future projects lined up?

Yes. An adventure story of the same era that is begging to be told for the first time.

And last but not least, since this is The Mitford Society who is your favourite Mitford girl?

I suppose I’d have to say Nancy. Although younger, she was a great friend of Sheila’s.

An interview with Kendra Bean author of Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait

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Vivien Leigh and Nancy Mitford had many friends in common; Lady Diana Cooper, Noel Coward and even Winston Churchill, though as we Mitty fans know, ‘Cousin’ Winston was more than a friend to the family. I am certain Nancy and Vivien must have met one another along the way, though I have found no evidence of this. However, in her letters, Nancy writes of a film adaptation of the Love in a Cold Climate and how Vivien Leigh was a contender to play Linda. Sadly the film fell through.

I’ve been anticipating my interview with Kendra Bean, author of Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait, because some familiar factors are at play here: Kendra and I have known one another – in the online sense – for years, probably a decade but who is counting! We secured book deals within a day of one another and on a more significant note, today is the centenary of Vivien’s birth.

Kendra runs www.vivandlarry.com – an online treasure trove of information on Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier. Her gorgeous coffee table book, Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait was published by Running Press and is gaining much attention in the media and by fans alike. I caught up with Kendra to quiz her about her book, the interview follows below.

Click here to purchase Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait.

When did you become a fan of Vivien Leigh, can you tell us about the defining moment?

There wasn’t really a defining moment. My interest in Vivien began when I first saw Gone With the Wind and deepened over time as I read and learned more about her.

Did you ever imagine it would lead to a website, an international following and a publishing deal?

When I first became interested in her story? No, not really. There were quite a few Vivien websites online at that time. I’d been a fan for a while when I decided to start vivandlarry.com, which I did because as I began doing my own collecting and research about Vivien, there were a lot of things I wasn’t finding on those other websites and wanted to share them with other people. Over the years it’s grown exponentially, which was surprising as I never knew there were so many other fans out there. As you know, the book deal was a long time coming, even after I’d decided I wanted to do it. It took a lot of persistence to convince publishers that Vivien is still relevant today.

What inspired you to write a coffee table book rather than a conventional biography of Vivien?

My interest in Vivien led to a further appreciation for vintage fashion and Hollywood studio photography. In some ways I almost enjoy coffee table books about Old Hollywood more than straight biographies because those actors, those stars, lent themselves so well to the visual medium. Also, in maintaining vivandlarry.com there were so many photographs of Vivien that turned up, which I hadn’t seen before.

My original vision for An Intimate Portrait was to have all new and super rare photos, and there were a lot that I found which aren’t included in the book for various reasons ranging from copyright issues to things being too expensive for my budget. But during the publication process, I learned that there has to be a sense of familiarity for readers, as well as new material, and a mix of colour and black and while photos.

Can you describe the process which you undertook in gathering information and how you go about transcribing it?

This book was five years from idea stage to finished product, and in that time I obviously had other things going on in my life – working full time, graduate school, moving half way around the world, working again. But the research process consisted of gathering as many materials as possible to form a timeline. This included sourcing articles, transcribing letters and documents in archives, listening to audio, watching Vivien’s films again, going through the previous biographies, etc.

Then I had to sort the pile of information in front of me and start to construct a narrative. As this isn’t a full biography, I really had to editorialise and think about what worked here and what didn’t, what was really important and what wasn’t in reconstructing Vivien’s story. There were areas I wanted to highlight and felt I could bring something new to, whether it was new documentary information or new analysis based on my own knowledge of film history.

What was your publishing journey like, can you tell us about any unexpected twists or turns?

It was a long road. When I first started out on this journey I knew next to nothing about how to take my idea and turn it into an actual book. How does one go about getting published? I asked a lot of questions and, thankfully, people were encouraging and willing to offer advice. Things got serious when I packed up and moved to London in 2010. I got an agent pretty much right away, which was really exciting and a step in the right direction, but then it took two years to actually get a publisher. In that time, the focus of my book changed (for the better, I think), so I had to re-write my proposal.

I was a bit disappointed that a lot of publishers didn’t think Vivien was that relevant anymore, and therefore didn’t think she would sell. From running my website and Facebook page, I knew there was an audience for a book like this, but I had to prove it. I have enough awareness of marketing to know that big anniversaries are a good selling point, and because there hadn’t been a good biography about Vivien since Hugo Vickers’ in the late 1980s, I knew that if I didn’t get it published for this 100th anniversary on 5 November, the ship would pass and there wouldn’t be another good opportunity for years, by which time people really might not care anymore. So, time was of the essence, and I needed a publisher that had the resources to publish this specific type of book. Running Press asked me to pitch the book via a conference call with the senior editor and publisher, and luckily I was able to convince them that this was a worthy project.

An Intimate Portrait was a late acquisition for Running Press’ fall 2013 list, so the turnaround time between getting my contract and handing in the manuscript was really fast. There was a lot of stress involved because not only did I have to finish the manuscript, I had to finish sourcing, purchasing, and clearing copyright for photos, which was a time consuming task in itself.

Is this the start of a writing career? What would you like to do next?

I hope so. I have a few different ideas kicking around. I’d like to try my hand at a full biography and also branch out into other areas of film history. I’m currently working in the photographs department at the National Portrait Gallery, which I love, so maybe there’s some more archival or curatorial work in my future. We’ll see what happens!

Aside from Vivien Leigh and the world of acting, who are you literary heroes?

I don’t have heroes, per-se, just favourite books. I read a lot of books about film history, but when it comes to literature, I’m a big fan of historical fiction. Some of my all-time favorite books include Gone With the Wind (an obvious one), The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas, Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry, The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley. I love the Song of Ice and Fire series by George R.R. Martin, A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole, and The Moviegoer by Walker Percy. I’ll read basically anything by Cormac McCarthy.

And last but not least, who is your favourite Mitford girl?

I don’t have one as yet, but I have The Mitford Girls’ Guide to Life in front of me and am looking forward to learning more about all of them.

An interview with the best selling Marilyn Monroe biographer, Michelle Morgan

It has been a joy to interview Michelle Morgan because she’s not only a magnificent biographer, she is also my friend too. Michelle has always been on hand to listen to my silly questions regarding writing and she’s always ready with good advice. I can’t say that she’s steered me wrong yet.  This is one interview that isn’t Mitford related but I think fellow authors, or aspiring writers, can take something useful away from this interview. Click here to visit Michelle’s Amazon page. ImageDid you always want to be a writer? Can you tell us a bit about your journey in becoming published?

When I was growing up I always thought wanted to be an actress.  I wanted to be the next Marilyn Monroe!!  I went to auditions, spent years working with a really negative, awful drama coach, took numerous exams etc, but what I discovered during that time, was that I really enjoyed writing the application letters (and was told they were very good) but I hated the auditions and the exams.  It took me a while but eventually I realised that the reason I was so good at writing the letters, was because I was a writer, not an actress.  That took about six years to realise!  But when I did, it all made sense.  When I was really young I used to write my own books (held together with string and staples) and numerous articles and stories too.  I was a writer from the age of about eight, but I never knew it – it took me until the age of twenty-one to finally understand that writing was what I needed to do with my life.

ImageThe journey to becoming published was long and rather up and down.  I worked in an office for seventeen years and during that time I was faced with an onslaught of negativity from many of my colleagues.  I was laughed at for having a dream that was out-of-the-ordinary; I was told I would never leave to do anything because I was ‘part of the furniture’ and whenever I was lucky enough to be on the television (such as the Collector’s Lot programme, or BBC and Sky News), people would take great joy in telling me they had ‘missed it.’  Don’t get me wrong, there were some people who were very supportive, and I’m still friends with them today, but for all those who supported me, there were many more who made fun of my dreams.  That’s okay though because those detractors made me very determined to prove them wrong, and made me extremely grateful for everything I have now.

But getting back to the point of becoming published…. In 1995 I had a book published entitled ‘Marilyn’s Addresses’ which was small but gave me enough confidence to see if I could write more.  I struggled for many years and wrote lots of articles, newspaper stories etc, and finally got a big break when Constable & Robinson decided they’d like to publish a hardback biography called ‘Marilyn Monroe: Private and Undisclosed.’  I was very lucky because they got me a publisher in the States too, and five years later I was given the opportunity to do a complete revision of the book for a paperback, which reached number 16 in the W H Smith Bestseller lists in 2012.  What a shock that was, but a happy, happy, shock!!

I had a few ups and downs between the hardback and paperback books, with several projects not working out the way I’d hoped, but I learned a great deal from the experiences, and now I am happy I went through the disappointments because they taught me to rely on myself and my own abilities.  Since then, numerous projects have come my way, including ‘The Mammoth Book of Hollywood Scandals’ which has just been published.

Around the time the hardback was published, I was offered a column in my local newspaper, and I have been writing it now for the past six years.  I am very happy to have my own column; not only because it has given me a chance to become more well-known locally,  but because it also gives me the opportunity to use my imagination when thinking of things to write about every week.
ImageWhat inspired you to write biography rather than fiction?

I like to write both, but it just so happened that my non-fiction work was picked up by a publisher, and my fiction wasn’t.  Actually I came quite close to having a novel published in 1998, but then at the last minute the marketing department of the publishing house decided that it was too much like Bridget Jones and so decided not to go with it.  At the time I hadn’t even read the Bridget Jones novel so it was a pure coincidence that they were in any way alike, and I was devastated that the book was dropped.  It is now lurking in a cupboard, along with several other novels that I wrote in the years after that.

I have been writing another novel for the past few years, called ‘Before I leave’ which is about an old man called Joseph, who is struggling to come to terms with the loss of his wife, and trying to discover why he is still on earth when his wife has gone.  It is a slow process because of the non-fiction work I am commissioned to do, but I will finish it one of these days.  I also have several other ideas for novels, and I have a play published, called ‘Wife Five.’  I wrote the play with Hollywood scriptwriter Steve Hayes, and it is about a man called Harry who has been married four times, and is about to embark on a fifth marriage.  His existing ex-wives are threatened that their lazy weekends at Harry’s beach house are about to be scuppered, so campaign to end the marriage before it has begun.  It is a comedy and I’m very proud of it, so to see it published is fabulous.  Next I hope to see it produced on stage too (there is a theatre company quite interested in it).  If that happens, it would be brilliant!
ImageDo you think you will move into the fiction market eventually?

Yes I definitely think that I will write more fiction.  The publication of my play is a big step in that direction, and I will continue to move that part of my career forward.  It is my aim to write in all kinds of genres – biography, novels, children’s books, plays, and screenplays.  At the moment though, I am becoming very well known for my work in biography and non-fiction, so I think I will stick to that for a while and then make my move a little later down the line.  I intend to write for the rest of my life, so God willing I will have many more years of writing books ahead of me.
What process do you undertake when writing a biography?

I start by creating a timeline of events in my subject’s life, then start doing the research; gathering as much information as I can find such as vintage newspaper articles, documents, letters, archives etc.  Then when I think I have enough to start writing, I do so, but my research never ends.  Up until the revision process, I am still seeking new information, looking for new leads and writing up recently-found information.  I am a firm believer in leaving no stone unturned and I think that came across particularly in the Marilyn  book – I tried to write about all aspects of her life, from helping a family member with DIY, to singing for the President, and everything in-between!  I wanted all her stories to be told and I think it came out pretty well in the end.

I know that you are a great example or somebody who has gone mainstream with your work but has also put in the time and effort to do projects which are a labour of love.

What do you think of the E-book and self publishing market and how do you think it will effect your work as a writer?

I have mixed feelings about self-publishing to be honest.  Don’t get me wrong, there are some great self-published books out there and I self-published a book of my newspaper columns last year, which I’m very pleased about.  But I am a very firm believer that writers are born, not made and with that in mind, I think it is hugely important for anyone who wants to write a book, to make sure they actually can construct a sentence before pressing send on the self-publishing website!  Writing is not an easy job and I find it incredible that people think they can just throw words at a page and it will create a book.  Writing is a craft just like everything else; and not everyone can do it.  It is not shameful to admit that you can’t write; it is more shameful to self-publish a book that is badly written and expect other people to spend their money on it.

I also find it scary that self-publishing means that people can write about all kinds of things that would never be published by a traditional publisher.  Subjects that are taboo, or illegal can all be done as a self-published work, and this scares me a lot.  Self-publishing is a great tool when used properly, but when abused, I think it can create a quite a substantial mess.

What writers inspire you?

I love many writers, but I am really inspired by biographer David Stenn, who has written about Jean Harlow and Clara Bow.  His books really did inspire me to write the Marilyn book, and I thanked him in the Acknowledgements section too.  When he contacted me to say that he’d read the thank you I gave him, I was so thrilled.  He is the God of biography-writing as far as I’m concerned!  Other writers who inspire me are Jackie Collins, Lisa Jewell, J K Rowling, Jane Green, and Stephen King , because they all have a tremendous work ethic which I admire greatly.  They tell a good story too!

Can you tell us a bit about your next project?

My latest book has just been published in the UK and will be out in the USA in December.  It is called ‘The Mammoth Book of Hollywood Scandals’ and has so far been very well-received by readers.  It covers over sixty different scandals, tragedies, deaths, etc and is 170,000 words long!  The book goes from the Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle scandal in the 1920s, right through to the present day, so it is quite diverse and has something for everyone I think.

At the moment I am writing a book about Carole Lombard; co-writing an illustrated book about Marilyn Monroe’s early career; and am in the process of signing a contract to write about….  Oh wait… That’s a secret project and I’m not allowed to talk about it!  Yet!

What is your dream project?

I would love to write Madonna’s official biography!  I’ve loved her since the age of thirteen and to have her ask me to work on her authorized story would definitely be a dream-come-true.  But in the meantime, I think the books I am working on at the moment are definitely dream projects for me.  I am grateful to every single project I am offered, and every day when I am able to make my living as a writer.  I have dreamt about this for many years and I will never take it for granted.  Doing what you want to do with your life, and be paid too is a great honour, and one I will appreciate for the rest of my days.

Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Yes.  To aspiring authors I would say that if you are absolutely sure that writing is what you were born to do, then never, ever, give up.  I worked seventeen years in a job I hated, standing at a photocopier and imagining the day when I could see my book on a bookshelf and take part in interviews such as this one.  Never let anyone put you down and belittle your dreams.  It sounds trite but dreams really do come true, so work very hard and always do your best.  That’s really the only thing you can do.

Click here to order Michelle’s latest book The Mammoth Hollywood Book of Scandals