Interview with M.J. Carter
How did you come across this story? What inspired you to write about it?
The Devil’s Feast is the third in a mystery series I’m writing set in the 1840s —a fascinating decade, full of change and turmoil (horses to railways, letter to telegraph), with lots of parallels with now—featuring two detectives, Jeremiah Blake and William Avery. But each is set in a different ‘world’ of the period.
In the course of my general research into the 1840s, I discovered the extraordinary French chef Alexis Soyer, a culinary genius and brilliant self-publicist who became the first great celebrity chef. He was such a vivid, funny, eccentric character he practically walked off the page. I decided I had to write about him and Victorian food itself. Food was a particularly complicated and vexed subject in the 1840s, a decade when technological advances —faster transport, gas ranges, better temperature control among other things—meant the rich could enjoy all kinds of new culinary experiences, while severe economic depression and failed harvests meant the poor often literally starved. And there was another big subject attached to food at the time In Britain (and indeed all over the world), and that was the subject of food adulteration: from chalk being added to bread to make it go further, and boric acid to milk to stop it from smelling as it went off, to the common addition of actual poisons to food, like copper to tinned vegetables to make them look greener. It seemed such a rich area to explore — and so it proved.
What were your main sources for your research? How did you organize everything? (That is, got any tips for fellow writers?)
I’d already built up a pretty good store of information about the period from my reading for the previous books. For this one I read all the biographies of Soyer, of which there are several of very varying quality — the best, and it’s terrific, is Relish by xxxx. I looked at Victorian food in general, there’s a lot written about it, and I explored the writing of several very good food historians, including the great Ivan Day who among other things recreates period menus which incredible accuracy and elan. Soyer also published several terrific cook books, from the incredibly complex and hilarious pompous The Gastronomic Regulator, to A Shilling Cookery for the People which is an amazingly thought-through cookbook for working class families and has the first recipe for British fish and chips. I also read food writer Bea Wilson’s excellent Swindled, about the history of food adulteration.
What were the biggest challenges you faced either in the research, the writing, or structuring the plot?
Actually research is the thing I find relatively straightforward. As a historian it feels like my comfort blanket and safety net, I’m very comfortable with it, but I have to remember it’s the frame and foundation of my story, not the thing itself. The thing I find hardest is the plotting. When I started writing thrillers it was the most daunting thing, coming up with a plot and then simply getting my characters from plane to another. I found myself getting caught up in all kinds of cul de sacs and getting ridiculously obsessed with continuity – my characters seemed to spend a a lot of time getting up and sitting down and walking in and out of rooms – until I realised that I could cut all that stuff out! Now I try and plan as much of my plot as possible before I start writing, I’m not as good at it as I’d like, but I’m getting better. As for the writing – oh well, it’s a nightmare!
Every writer has to leave something on the cutting floor. What’s on yours?
I hope, as the great Elmore Leonard said, ‘the boring bits’. I write too long, and my weakness is—you guessed it— too much historical detail. I tend to do three drafts and much of the work of the second and third is to take out the history. It often creeps in when I’m either too overexcited about it and want to put it all in, or I’m not yet quite sure what’s supposed to be happening and overcompensate with too much fact. There’s still a lot of food and workings of a professional kitchen in The Devil’s Feast, but I tell you I still took out a few courses! Otherwise, there are always plot cul de sacs I go up in the first draft that don’t work and I end up having to navigate myself out of. In this book, there were too many cooks— no really, I started out with a bunch of grumpy French chefs and they just got too boring and unwieldy so I had to give them the chop (to coin a phrase).
Tag you’re it! What historical fiction author do you most admire? Why?
Such a hard question! There’s a long list, but I’ve just reread after twenty years a novel I consider a masterpiece and tremendously admire — An Instance of the Finger Post by Iain Pears. I loved it when it came out in 1997, and it has really stood the test of time. It’s set in Oxford in the 1660s just after the restoration of King Charles II, where academics, inventors and experimenters, ex-spies and religious dissenters are jostling to establish themselves under the new regime, and concerns the events surrounding a murder and its consequences told from four different perspectives. Pears builds a fascinating world, each different voice completely throws the reader so you have to keep reorientating yourself (it’s so well structured), he pitches in all kinds of eccentric 17th century ideas, gives the reader a meditation on belief, truth and obsession, and you just can’t put it down. I wish I’d written it!
MJ Carter is an English historian, writer and biographer. She is the author of the Blake and Avery thrillers – The Strangler’s Vine & The Printer’s Coffin. She lives in London with her partner and two sons.
Missed our previous Five for Friday? Read last week’s interview with Imogen Robertson. 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.