Today, I’m delighted to be talking with Lynn Shepherd, author of Murder at Mansfield Park and Tom-All-Alone’s.
When did you first know that you wanted to be a writer? Was there a specific event that made you decide?
I think it was always there as a dream, but that dream only hardened into an ambition after I went freelance as a copywriter in 2000, and finally had some time to devote to serious writing of my own. Two and a half unpublished novels later Murder at Mansfield Park was accepted by a UK publisher in 2009, and then by a US one, and then by an Australian one…
Which authors have had the greatest influence upon you?
I read a lot of classic English fiction, and my love for writers like Austen and Dickens goes very deep. But I’ve also been influenced by modern writers – I admire AS Byatt very much, especially her earlier novels, and the crime writer who’s had the most impact on me is Joan Smith. I love her Loretta Lawson novels.
What made you choose to write your modern take on classic novels? Did you have any worries about tackling characters who would be greatly loved by readers?
The initial idea for turning Jane Austen into a murder mystery just popped into my head unbidden in the summer of 2008. I had no idea or intention at that stage of doing the same thing again. But once Murder at Mansfield Park was published I started to wonder whether I was onto quite an interesting and unusual idea. After all, there are many murder mysteries set in the Victorian period (some of them very good), but no-one’s done quite the same thing as I’ve done in Tom-All-Alone’s (which is published in the US as The Solitary House). In other words, creating a new story that runs parallel with another book – in this case Bleak House. And yes, there’s always a risk if you work with a classic that people love, but I think most people who’ve read my novels can see that I love those classics just as much as they do, and have written my own books in that spirit.
Why did you choose the novels that you based your books on? In hindsight would other choices have been more fun or useful to work with?
I chose the books primarily because I love and admire them. After all, who’d want to spend all those months working with a text you couldn’t stand! Mansfield Park has always intrigued me since it’s Austen’s ‘problem child’ – she’s trying to do something different and more serious and it doesn’t quite come off, and I found the reasons for that comparative failure extremely interesting to explore. As for Bleak House, I’ve always considered it the quintessential Dickens – a marvellous book, and marvellous material to mine.
What’s been your favourite moment in your writing career?
That call from my agent saying I had my first deal! I think many writers would probably say the same.
If you could spend time with two favourite characters, one from another writer and one from your fiction who would they be and what might you all do?
Taking my own characters first, I think it would be Charles Maddox senior, the ‘thief taker from Murder at Mansfield Park who appears again, as an old man, in Tom-All-Alone’s/The Solitary House. He’s a very sophisticated and well-educated man, but he also made a career out of solving of crime at a time when there was no police force as we know it. He dealt with crimes involving the highest in the land, and the most brutal realities of life on the streets, so he’d have wonderful stories to tell.
As for another writer’s characters, I think I would it would be Robert Lovelace, the rakish libertine in Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa. Richardson is not read much these days, but Clarissa is a masterpiece of European literature, and Lovelace is by far his most dazzling creation.
And what would we three do? I think we would explore some of the areas of 18th and 19th century London that these two characters would have known, and then end up having what would no doubt be a hugely stimulating dinner – I’m sure sparks would fly!
How do you research your novels? Do you research before you start to write or do you do it on an ongoing process?
There was much more research for Tom-All-Alone’s/The Solitary House than for Murder at Mansfield Park. For the Austen, most of the work went into getting the language right; for the Dickens, it was a much bigger task, because I had to bring Victorian London back to life. That meant a lot of reading. Though in principle I always do the minimum of research before I start writing and fill in the gaps afterwards, because otherwise you can fall into the trap of having the research dictate the story, rather than the other way round. I hate it when I read books and stumble over huge lumps of only partially digested research which the writer’s obviously spent days looking for, and is going to get in there one way or another!
Which research tools, sources and web-sites did you find most useful?
The www.victorianlondon.org website is excellent for the later 19th century. The http://janeaustensworld.wordpress.com and http://austenonly.com/ sites are also very helpful for Regency customs and background.
What would be a typical writing day for you? Do you have set times, spaces, routines or rituals?
Because I write for my day job I’m very disciplined – at the desk by 8.30 usually, and then I write through till about 5.
If you were to give advice to someone thinking of writing a novel what would it be?
Don’t give up! Having the talent is only the start – if you’re going to get published you’ll need determination, perseverance, and a very thick skin. But it can be done!
What is your next writing project?
My third book is called A Treacherous Likeness, and is, in effect, a sequel to Tom-All-Alone’s/The Solitary House. It’s out in February from Corsair in theUK, and later in 2013 in North America from Random House.
Thanks very much for talking with me, Lynn.
Tom-All-Alone’s is published in the UK by Corsair, and in North America by Random House as The Solitary House. Murder at Mansfield Park is available as an e-book from Corsair in the UK, and is published by St Martin’s Press in the US and Canada, and Allen & Unwin in Australia.
Lynn’s website is www.lynn-shepherd.com, and this includes a video which was shot in some of the locations used in Tom-All-Alone’s/The Solitary House. Her Twitter ID is @Lynn_Shepherd.
Next Friday I’ll be talking with Angus Donald, author of the Outlaw novels. Sherwood here we come.