– ‘The Magic of Wor(l)ds’ blog is a hobby, reviews and other bookish stuff on this site are done for free. –
Today I’m on the ‘Killing Beauties’ blogtour, organised by Random Things Tour.
About the Author :
Pete Langman is a writer, academic, cricketer and sometime rock and roll guitarist who holds a PhD on Francis Bacon (the other one) and was diagnosed with Young Onset Parkinson’s Disease at 40. His non-fiction encompasses Cricket, Parkinson’s Disease, Music, History of Science, literature and culture, and has appeared in publications ranging from The Guardian to Guitar and Bass Magazine. He lives between Leiden and Brighton with his partner Dr. Nadine Akkerman, award-winning author of Invisible Agents, who supplies him with historical expertise and who keeps asking if they can have a cat now, please.
England, 1655. Following the brutal civil wars the country swelters under a cloud of paranoia, suspicion and the burgeoning threat of rebellion. With the fragile peace being won by Cromwell’s ever-efficient Secretary of State John Thurloe, the exiled king Charles Stuart sends two spies on a dangerous mission to wrest back the initiative. These spies are different, however: they are women. Their task? To turn Parliament’s spymaster into their unwitting accomplice. Killing Beauties is a dark tale of subterfuge, jealousy and betrayal.
It is sometimes said that women are written out of history, but often they are not yet written in. Killing Beauties is based on the true stories of two female spies from the 1650s and gives them the voice that only fiction can. Pete Langman.
First of all thank you very much for taking the time to answer my questions, I really appreciate it. Here we go! 🙂
Can you, for those who don’t know you already, tell something about yourself and how you became an author?
I was born far too long ago for my liking, but the intervening years have been rather interesting. Having gone to Los Angeles in 1987 to study music, I spent the next decade playing and teaching the electric guitar, before burning out around the turn of the century. By this point I had been writing a monthly column for Guitar and Bass magazine for five years or so. Come the millenium, I switched focus, spending the next ten years immersed in literature, first as an undergraduate, then postgraduate and finally lecturer, I wrote a few academic pieces and taught a lot at several universities. In 2008, my world underwent a minor upsidedown moment when I was diagnosed with young onset parkinson’s. Just I received my first (temporary) lectureship. Perhaps unsurprisingly, things got a little messy, and I had to become a little more flexible on account of my new companion’s utter disdain for normal activities. In these past few years I’ve been quite active in the Parkinson’s community, publishing ‘on and in aid of’ (notably Slender Threads: a young person’s guide to Parkinson’s Disease), raising money and awareness, while working as an editor (mostly in academia), teacher (privately and at Oxford University), and writer. I’m a great lover of the game of cricket, and have produced several articles and a book (The Country House Cricketer) on the subject. I write considerably better than I play.
As for how one becomes an author … it’s a slippery word, and is perhaps not the most useful, when used on its own. Its root comes from the word ‘auctor’ which was the authority a writer such as Chaucer would cite to demonstrate the legitimacy of their writing. It wasn’t really until Ben Jonson that writers began to cite themselves as authors, that is, their own authority. I’m not sure when one qualifies as such, therefore. Is it on writing something, on someone else reading it or on publication? Ultimately, it’s down to sheer bloody-mindedness.
Which books did/do you love to read as a child/now as a grown-up?
As a child I mostly read history books and encylopaedias. One prospective headmaster suggested to my mother that I (at 7) couldn’t read ‘because when I asked Pete what he thought of Biggles, he said “who”?’
As an adult it’s difficult. Until seven or eight years ago I read colossal quantities, and also taught literature, but then the side-effects of my meds meant that I would practically fall asleep the moment I opened the pages. These days I’m either writing, editing, or recovering from writing and editing. If I were to pick a modern book to re-read, however, it would be Quarantine by Jim Crace.
Is there a writer whose brain you would love to pick for advice? Who would that be and why?
Dickens, without doubt. I’d love to know what kicks off his astonishing characterisations, and how he manages to find the secondary images that match a scene ‘just so’.
If you could, which fictional character (from your own book(s) or someone else’s) would you like to invite for tea and why?
I’d like to meet Jenny Wren, from Our Mutual Friend, by Charles Dickens. I just love her acid wit – to watch the world go by while she gave a running commentary would be quite something.
Do you have some rituals or habits whilst writing?
Doubtless, but I couldn’t tell you what they were. I write everywhere: in bed; on the sofa; in the pub; on the train. But only when I want to. And when I have the energy – lethargy, fatigue and apathy are some of the lesser-known but debilitating symptoms of Parkinson’s. My writing tends to come in big surges – I wrote the first draft of Killing Beauties (66,000wds) in 19 days. This was followed by some serious recovery before I could get to the relentless rewriting and editing necessary to batter it into the 93,000wds it is now.
Physically, however, I write very slowly. Parkinson’s makes writing by hand both impossible and illegible (google ‘micrographia’), and I pretty much type with one finger and thum on my right hand and one finger on my left. Twenty years ago I could virtually touch-type. If my body’s feeling co-operative, I can use another right-hand finger: if not, my tremor means I have constant word overruns and extra letters appearing from nowhere. It has a positive side, mind. It means I think about every letter I write, and rarely get into that flow where your fingers just get on with it.
It’s certainly true that on more than one occasion my surroundings have influenced my fictional world. If I am eating pie, I am generally eating pie with my characters, but it’s not always clear to me whether I have invited them for supper or they me …
Where do you come up with your idea(s)? Do people in your life need to be worried? 😉
Definitely worried. Especially when I’m writing historical fiction … of course, everything that is ever written has a toe in the pool of authorial experience or observation, whether first-hand or otherwise. But each tiny truth has to be massaged and manipulated until it fits with the story at hand – and even in autobiographies the author’s supporting cast will generally be muttering ‘that’s not quite how it happened’ while they read as if it were some sort of mantra.
In historical fiction, the author pretty much chooses one of two possible paths – they will either historicise fiction or fictionalise history. Killing Beauties is (mostly) of the latter persuasion, as it takes real people and real events and weaves a story around them. In this case, the ideas are generated through considered conjucture spun from historical ‘node points’. Say, by way of an example, we know that x happened to y, and that two weeks later, y was seen at z, but we have no knowledge of what came in between. I will discuss these nodes with my partner, or with myself, or let the characters get on with it themselves – but in each case thinking of any possible routes from occasion x to position z. Eventually, a particular route becomes the only way the story works, the only way I can imagine the story unfolding or the only way the characters will allow.
In non-historical fiction, it’s usually working backwards from an observation, a question or an image. For example, I wrote a short story (cogito, ergo amo) from a discussion with a friend who suggested that to be kind is the default status of all sentient beings. This turned into ‘if a drone became conscious, would it want to help people?’ I wondered whether making a drone conscious would make it want to ‘find itself’, and then asked myself what would happen if its real ‘self’ was a killing machine …
Are you a plotter or do you go with the flow, as a pantser?
Ah, the eternal p vs p question. My usual answer is that I don’t really see that much of a difference, as pantsers are simply plotting longhand, while plotters are just pantsing in note form. With historical fiction, and perhaps more so with Killing Beauties than some, it’s a far more complicated question, as the answer is both. The protagonists, Susan and Diana, were real she-intelligencers, and so a fair amount of what happens to them in the book is (so far as we can tell) absolutely true. This also goes for their letters, as some of them are lightly modified versions of real letters that they (or others) wrote. These ‘true’ bits of history formed the pilings on which the path of the story itself was built. But these women were spies, and spies are not keen on leaving much of a trail behind them, as it tends to lead to disappointment on all sorts of levels. The result of this is that there are big gaps in the archives where we simply don’t know what happened. I got to colour in these parts in crayon. So I plotted meticulously, then leapt from my plot-points into the depths of the empty page as I wrote. Some parts of the book are more truth than fiction, others more made up than they are accurate. Hopefully, it’s not at all clear which parts are which.
Can you give novice writers some tips (do’s/don’ts)?
I suppose my one catch-all piece of advice would be take all advice with a pinch of salt. Writers are bombarded by ‘experts’ who say the only way to write is to be disciplined, or the only way to write is to pay attention to inspiration, and so on. Personally, I say give everything a listen, try out whatever appeals and if it works, keep doing it: if it doesn’t, move on. Life is too short to slavishly follow someone else’s star. When you read a headline that reads something along the lines of ‘learn the one trait shared by all successful writers’, remember that it is simply that they’re all successful.
One thing to bear in mind is that every great author has written total rubbish. We just don’t usually get to see it.
What are your futureplans as an author?
As ever, I’m not quite sure. Projects seem to decide on me, rather than the other way around. I have plans for a sequel to Killing Beauties, but there are also two other works that I would like to revisit in a serious manner. Which comes first will depend very much on circumstances – obviously if Killing Beauties has any measure of success, that will take priority. I am keen on trying different genres, however. This is perhaps another reason why making up my mind is very low down on my list of qualities!
Last, but not least : Can you give my readers one teaser from your book, which is featured here on my blog, please?
Diana Jennings lifted the skirts of her dress and smiled at the sailor who stood in front of her, squinting slightly as the still weak morning sun groped at his face. She could see the waters of the English Channel lapping at his calves, and figured that exposing her rather unconventional footwear was preferable to allowing her already wet clothes to get even wetter. The prow of the two-masted vessel on which she had booked passage ground itself into the shingle of the beach beside her as its stern rocked gently on the swell. A light sea-fret drifted towards the shore, and had it not been for the chill of early morning Diana might have imagined the mist steam, and herself in one of the hot baths she’d heard were so popular in the Ottoman court. Sir Thomas Roe had been a friend of a friend and she had read third-hand versions of his reports of the Sultan’s mores with relish, and no little envy. In truth, however, at this moment the opulence of the once mighty Byzantium seemed as distant as a child’s fable.
She surveyed the small, natural harbour from where she was soon to set off for home, and shivered as the fret rolled over her. Home. Diana no longer knew where her home was. Certainly Antwerp had become rather too dangerous since Henry Manning had appeared on the scene. She knew that she ought to have resisted the urge to fleece him as he slept off his evening’s quota of wine, but Diana rarely did what she ought. It was a habit that always threatened to catch up with her, even if it never made good on its promises. But it wasn’t Manning’s coin that weighed down her skirts, nor was it her conscience. His coin merely weighed down her shoulder bag, and this was one burden she welcomed. Coin was always welcome. But the thick dew that still lay heavy in the air had soaked through each layer of her dress and was now cold against her skin.
‘Have you no trunk, milady?’ The sailor adjusted his cap as he spoke, and waded through the surf towards her.
Diana travelled light as a matter of course. She had learnt the hard way that a trunk of clothing rendered a dawn getaway virtually impossible. Anyway, coin and bare-faced lies smoothed the way into society better than any silk.
‘Milady?’ he enquired once more.
Diana held out the small satchel that was the full extent of her luggage. The sailor took it, hesitated for a moment as he felt its weight, and then threw it under the boat’s canvas tilt. ‘You’ll do well to cover it, save it from the spray,’ he said, looking Diana up and down. Diana was more than used to this. She knew that while at first glance she appeared much like all the others who sought his services as a ferryman, there was something about her that he could not put his finger on. Diana was just another woman in her mid-thirties, average height, moderately handsome, though not striking; dull from the felt hat that covered her light brown hair to her feet. Well, perhaps not to her feet. But it was her countenance that set her apart. Diana knew that ladies who used his services were generally forced to do so by the vicissitudes of fortune, and she imagined that they made no attempt to hide their distaste for either their situation or his appearance.
Diana was different. Trouble was Diana’s primary currency: it was not something she ran from. Everything about her was conspicuously inconspicuous. She could melt into a crowd as easily as become the centre of its attention. Her dress was a case in point. It was embroidered silk, though not of the highest quality, and its initial impact dulled on closer inspection. It wasn’t as expensive as it made itself out to be. In that sense, at least, the dress suited her perfectly.
‘You have none more suitable clothing?’ asked the sailor as he offered his assistance in boarding.
Diana shook her head almost imperceptibly, and a little disdainfully, before taking the sailor’s hand and negotiating the gangplank. As he guided her steps onto her transport home, he held onto her hand for just a moment too long, and Diana knew that he was wondering how her skin might have felt on his were she not wearing soft leather gloves. But she could also see that he dismissed this as a fool’s contemplation, and he was no fool. Once she was aboard, the sailor merely directed her to the position on the boat’s two benches that offered most protection from the spray that would inevitably soak the passengers. She nodded her thanks and sat. He manhandled a piece of oiled cambric to wrap around her shoulders. Diana took the material and drew it close around her. The atmosphere was tense, and she sensed danger. It might just be time to try a new name.
Isn’t that a great reason to pick up this book and to find out more?!
Thanks once again for this lovely interview, Pete Langman.
The Magic of Wor(l)ds
P.S. Are you an author (or publisher) who also wants a FREE interview like this? You can always contact me via e-mail!