Today is release day for Tom-All-Alone's (Solitary House in the US edition) and I'm glad to feature this interview with its talented author, Lynn Shepherd, (her debut novel was Murder at Mansfield Park) who accepted to answer some questions after I read and reviewed her upcoming book.
Celebrate Dickens Bicentenary with us, read through Lynn's interview and about her love for Bleak House, leave your comment + e-mail address to take part in the giveaway contest open internationally for 1 copy of just released Tom-All-Alone's (copy provided by UK publishers, Corsair & Random House). The winner will be announced on February 28.
Writing a second novel after a successful debut one is never an easy task for a writer. What was your journey from Murder at Mansfield Park to Tom-All- Alone’s like?
I think there are two kinds of writers – those who have lots of ideas but sometimes struggle to complete a book, and those who have to work harder to get the initial idea, but then can usually work their way through the process of completing the draft. I’m definitely in the latter camp – it took me a long time to get the idea for Tom-All-Alone’s/The Solitary House clear in my mind, but once I had it, it didn’t take that long to actually write it. Only about six months in the end!
After writing a murder mystery set in one of Jane Austen’s major novels, you’ve shifted to a darker noir novel inspired to Dickens’s Bleak House. When and how did you come up with this choice?
When people ask me what sort of books I write I answer ‘literary murder’. With each of my books (so far!) I’ve taken a classic novel and re-worked it into a murder mystery. It’s best, of course, to do that with a book that people know well, so after Jane Austen, Charles Dickens was the obvious choice. And I think Bleak House is unquestionably his greatest masterpiece. I love the great panoramic sweep of the novel, from the highest in the land to the lowest on the streets.
Among the variety of Victorian novels you could have chosen , why just Bleak House?
Bleak House is my favourite Dickens novel, so I know it really well, which of course helps. And – even more importantly –it’s the first detective story in English, so it was almost as if Dickens was beckoning me on!
Something which will surely sound odd to people unfamiliar with Bleak House is the titles you’ve chosen for your book. Would you mind to explain what they refer to?
As you say, I have two titles for my book – it’s called Tom-All-Alone’s in the UK, and The Solitary House in North America. I chose them because they were both on Dickens’ own list of possible titles forBleak House. The name Tom-All-Alone’s comes from the slum that Dickens depicts in his novel – a wretched place of disease, decay and despair, right in the heart of London, which he sees as a symbol of everything that was wrong in British society at the time.
The Maddoxes. Charles Maddox senior was the thief-taker who investigated at Mansfield Park; young Charles Maddox, his great-nephew, has to solve the complex mystery in Tom- All – Alone’s/The Solitary House. Both own a fine intelligence and unbeatable investigating skills. But how different they are?
In some ways they are very alike – young Charles has a difficult relationship with his father, and his great-uncle has become something of a substituteparent to him. More importantly, Maddox has been Charles’ role model and mentor in a professional sense – teaching him his skills as a detective, and guiding him in the dark and complex case he investigates in the course of my book. The two of them also share some character traits too – both are quite reserved emotionally, and Charles, in particular, has a troubled past which makes him wary of close personal relationships.
In your story Dickens’s characters (inspector Bucket, Mr Tulkinghorn, among others) interact with your own creatures. The two stories run parallel and then intersect. What was the most difficult aspect to deal with?
The plot of Bleak House is extremely complex, and runs in its entirety over a number of years. I’ve chosen one slice of time within that story, and then composed a mystery of my own which takes place in parallel with it. As you say, I then weave in some of Dickens’ own characters. The lawyer Tulkinghorn, for example, hires Charles to take on a case for one of his clients, and as the mystery deepens Charles encounters Inspector Bucket, who turns out to be a old acquaintance. It was quite complicated to keep all these threads going, and to ensure that the timeframe was matching Dickens’ own, but to be honest that was one of the aspects of writing the book that I enjoyed the most!
What Dickens could only hint at is unveiled and comes into the foreground in Tom – All - Alone’s. How much research did that require?
I read a lot of books about the grimmer side of Victorian London as part of the research for the book. It was a dark and dangerous place to live, especially for the poor. Young girls as young as ten worked as prostitutes, disease was rife, sanitation almost non-existent, and thousands of people scraped the barest of livings on the streets, selling secondhand items, collecting rubbish, or even scavenging for dog excrement. Just imagine that now. Of course Dickens couldn’t write about such things – it would have been unacceptable in a novel then – but he certainly understoodthe harsh reality of life for many people, and saw it about him every day in the streets of London.
What did all the degradation, violence, cruelty you so thoroughly describe in your pages leave to you? Nightmares?
It’s interesting you ask that, because it didn’t disturb me too much. Though several people who’ve read the book have said they needed to sleep with the lights on afterwards. Though they meant it as a compliment!
The powerful, rich, respectable characters in your book embody the so-called Victorian compromise. They are apparently blameless in the daylight but hide unspeakable sins in their night life. How differently from Dickens did you deal with the hypocrisy of the Victorians?
I think in many ways our aproaches are quite similar. The difference is that I can be quite open about exactly what’s going on behind closed doors, while it was impossible for Dickens to be so candid about subjects like sex and prostitution – the conventions of Victorian publication simply wouldn’t countenance any reference to that sort of subject.
Which are the characters you most like to write? Why?
I love writing young Charles, because he intrigues me so much. Every time I set out to write him I discover something new about him. And old Maddox was a challenge this time, because he’s suffering from dementia, and that’s not an easy thing to convey in a sensitive but realistic way. And you’d be surprised how many people have fallen in love with Charles’ cat, Thunder!
Since you love the concision and quickness of Twitter, Lynn, I’m going to ask you: How would you present your book in no more than 50 words?
A dark murder mystery inspired by Bleak House, which explores the grim underworld of Victorian London that Dickens could only hint at.
What’s in the future for Lynn Shepherd the writer? A new case for Charles Maddox?
Absolutely! I’ve just finished the first draft of book three, which will be published by Corsair and Random House in 2013. It’s another ‘literary mystery’ and yes, the Maddoxes will be back!
That’s wonderful! I can’t wait to discover more and read your next book, Lynn. As for the nearer future, how will you celebrate Dickens’s Bicentenary in 2012?
In fact I’m very honoured to be giving a talk about my book at the Dickens House Museum in London, only two days after the bicentenary. There’s no better way to mark his birthday than that!
Tom - All - Alone's on Amazon.co.uk (hardcover)
Many thanks to Lynn Shepherd and Corsair & Random House publishers for this interview + giveaway.
Good luck to all of you in the giveaway contest.