Interview with Imogen Robertson
How did you come across this story? What inspired you to write about it?
I knew I wanted a change from the Crowther and Westerman Eighteenth Century crime series I write, and while I was thinking what I might do I came across my Grandmother’s old photo albums. She was born in the 1890s and travelled alone across Europe in the years before the first World War. When she travelled, she carried a sketchbook and looking at her watercolours I began to think about a young, quite inexperienced middle-class girl travelling to Paris to study art and what she might face there and so Maud, my protagonist, was born. Around the same time I stumbled across an article about the floods in Paris of early 1910 when the Seine seemed to revenge itself on the modernity of the city, travelling up the new métro tunnels and sewers to devastate areas far from the river banks. The ground beneath the feet of the Parisians became unstable. I couldn’t resist that setting for a novel of intrigue and betrayal.
What were your main sources for your research? How did you organize everything? (That is, got any tips for fellow writers?)
I started with a lot of reading, browsing through the newspapers for eyewitness accounts and telling details, looking for the things I didn’t know I didn’t know! I found all sorts of leads, odds and ends which became important for the novel, a Parisian charity for impoverished English and American women appealing for funds for example. Libraries can’t tell you everything though. I was lucky enough to spend time with an artist trained in the same way Maud would have been, and listening to her talk about art as well as just being in her studio was a huge help. I also got to handle some very lovely diamonds! And of course I went to Paris. I met an American writer who lives there, David Downie, and he and his wife took me on a wonderful tour of secret corners perfect for the novel which I would never have found on my own. In terms of organisation, I write up my research longhand – seems to sink in better that way – and gather bundles of images on the computer. It’s never as well organised as I would like though.
What were the biggest challenges you faced either in the research, the writing, or structuring the plot?
I always struggle to leave the research alone and get writing! Hanging around in libraries or with artists and diamond dealers is too much fun. One thing I’ve learnt though is that every novel has its own unique set of problems and there is no way to avoid bumping up against them. Sometimes it’s the crucial detail you need isn’t there in the research, sometimes it’s that a character changes on the page and suddenly your plot doesn’t work any more. It drives me mad, but I think if I found it easy now – research, writing or structure, I’d worry I wasn’t working hard enough.
Every writer has to leave something on the cutting floor. What’s on yours?
Ah, well in this case it was quite dramatic, I left about a third of the novel behind! I had a modern parallel narrative on the go in my first to third drafts, a young woman discovering the story of Maud and the mysteries of her time in Paris. I loved her, but the push and pull of moving between times was simply not working in this novel. After talking it over with my editor, I realised I had to keep the whole story in the Belle Époque, and cut about thirty thousand words. It was a frightening afternoon, but after that the rewriting was a pleasure and the story of Maud and her struggles had the room it needed to deepen and grow.
Tag you’re it! What historical fiction author do you most admire? Why? Now forward these questions to him/her and we’ll share their answers next week!
I’m tagging M J Carter who is the author of the Blake and Avery adventure stories as well as being a distinguished historian. Her writing is vivid and pacy, her understanding of her characters subtle and acute and her fast-paced plotting makes for a really engaging and satisfying read.
Imogen Robertson was born in Darlington and studied German and Russian at Caius College, Cambridge. After some years directing TV, film and radio she became a full time writer on winning the Telegraph’s ‘First thousand words of a novel’ competition in 2007. Since then she has written five novels in the Westerman and Crowther crime series which is set in the late 18th century, beginning with ‘Instruments of Darkness’ in 2009. The latest volume in the series, ‘Theft of Life’, is set in London against the background of the transatlantic slave trade. She has also written ‘The Paris Winter’ – a novel of betrayal and revenge set in the late Belle Époque. She has been shortlisted for the CWA Historical Dagger three times and is currently Chair of the Historical Writers’ Association.
Missed our previous Five for Friday? Read last week’s interview with Ed O’Loughlin. Want to binge read our interviews with fantastic authors? Check out our interviews with Sophia Tobin, Georgia Hunter, Anna Mazola, Essie Fox, Ami McKay, and Eva Stachniak.