Saturday, January 18, 2014

Guest: Imogen Robertson

Aline writes:
I'm delighted this week to be introducing Imogen Robertson.  She's funny, feisty and fiercely intelligent and her latest book, Paris Winter, was shortlisted for the Crime Writers' Association Historical Dagger.  Her Island of Bones was described on as 'one of the five most addictive books of the year.'

Sometimes when I tell people I write historical fiction, they screw up their face as if I’d just told them I have a mild but uncomfortable disease, and say sympathetically ‘doesn’t that involve an awful lot of research?’

It does, but for me researching a novel is the most fun you can have whilst still claiming to be working. The Paris Winter began life when I was going through old family photo albums. In them I found snap-shots taken by my Grandmother as she travelled across Europe in the years before WWI. I also found her sketch book, and from those stimuli the idea of an English woman going to train as an artist in Paris took form. Around the same time I learned about the severe flooding that took place in Paris in January 1910, when water from the Seine was forced up the new metro tunnels and sewage system to cause floods, and pavement collapses far away from the river. I thought that would make a fascinating background for my protagonist, Maud, as her carefully constructed, but fragile existence collapses around her. 

You can probably guess some of the research I started with. I needed to know in detail about the floods, and found a wonderful collection of images online and some excellent secondary sources. But it when you delve into the primary sources that things start to open out and allow for the serendipitous. While looking up reports of the floods in The Times, I found on the front page an appeal for funds from The Ada Leigh Homes for Impoverished English and American Girls in Paris. Finding out about the Homes shed a completely new light on the women living in the city. A fictionalised version of the Homes and their remarkable founder appear in the book and all because they happened to be advertising on that day in 1910, and I was browsing through that issue over a hundred years later. I don’t think I’d have found Ada Leigh any other way. I can’t remember coming across any other mention of her in my reading. 

I also realised I needed to know a lot more about the art world of the period, so giving myself a crash course in the impressionists and post-impressionists was a key part of the research, but also tough to describe as work. I discovered the work of a number of brilliant female artists who trained in Paris at the time, and one who lived there all her life, the brilliant Suzanne Valadon. She fed her drawings to her pet goat if she didn’t like them, had a lover younger than her son and produced work that is both brutal and subtle, rich with colour and brutally honest. I also had enormous fun reading about the art collections of Gertrude Stein and the reactions of the contemporary critics to Matisse and Picasso. The paint soaked through the whole book. While I was writing I had open on my desk a 1908 catalogue full of samples of oil colours and sunk myself into the peculiar poetry of their names. The most useful hours I spent researching women and art though were with Caroline de Peyrecave. She is a portrait artist who was trained in exactly the same way Maud would have been in the 1900s. I found her on the internet and she very kindly let me visit her and ask dumb questions. Looking at her work and spending time in her studio gave me the textures and scents of Maud’s world in a way the books alone never could. Another fun thing to do while claiming to be working? Being allowed to handle diamonds of eye-watering size and clarity at a jewellers in Bond Street. All this before the essential Paris research trips… There are limits. I didn’t try opium, though I did find a brilliant account by someone who did. 

All that said, my sympathetic friends are right about research being difficult in two ways. The first is learning to resist the temptation to lecture your readers about all the fascinating things you’ve found out, which is why writing blogs on The History Girls website on Valadon, Ada Leigh and Parisian jewel heists was such a pleasure, but I think if you’re going to write historical fiction you need to know your material, then let it appear on the page naturally. You have to see the story through the eyes of your characters then trust that those details will come through and create the world of your book. The other difficulty is knowing when to stop your research and get writing. You never feel you know enough, and, of course, writing is difficult and much more like hard work than reading Laura Knight’s autobiography or wandering round the Passage des Panoramas in Paris. There comes a time, however, when your characters insist on your attention and then you must begin to follow them from the studios to the opium dens, the river to cafés of Montmartre, never quite knowing what corner they are about to turn next.

1 comment:

Frankie Y. Bailey said...

I loved reading about your research, Imogen. What fun! Hard work, too. But the delightful discoveries always make it worth the effort.