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An interview with Alex Lake, author of Copycat

Copycat by Alex LakeAlex Lake is one of my favourite authors of psychological thrillers – I loved After Anna and Killing Kate (despite the latter’s title, obviously…). The good news is that this week HarperCollins publishes Alex’s latest thriller, Copycat. A review will follow shortly but, in the meantime, I was delighted to be given the opportunity to interview Alex as part of the blog tour to celebrate Copycat‘s publication.

First, a little of what the book’s about:

Imitation is the most terrifying form of flattery…

Which Sarah Havenant is you?

When an old friend gets in touch, Sarah Havenant discovers that there are two Facebook profiles in her name. One is hers. The other, she has never seen.

But everything in it is accurate. Photos of her friends, her husband, her kids. Photos from the day before. Photos of her new kitchen. Photos taken inside her house.

And this is just the beginning. Because whoever has set up the second profile has been waiting for Sarah to find it. And now that she has, her life will no longer be her own…

Q&A, with thanks to Alex!

Congratulations, Alex, for Copycat! Another excellent psychological thriller. What inspired you to write the story of Sarah Havenant? Where did her story come from?

Thank you – very kind! Sarah’s story came from a number of different ideas that I had floating around – I’d been thinking about identity theft online, I had an idea about meeting your doppelganger and what that might do, I wanted to write about someone – who became Sarah – who had a seemingly stable, solid life, but who had no idea of what was coming to them and how vulnerable they were. And then, one evening, all of the ideas came together: the doppelganger became an online doppelganger, and they were the person who meant Sarah serious harm.

That tends to be how it happens – I have all kinds of scraps and notes and ideas for characters, none of which is, on its own, a book. Then one day they assemble in some way and I think – there it is. That’s a novel.

Did researching the story affect your use of social media, particularly Facebook?

I don’t use social media all that much, although if I did I would probably have stopped after writing Copycat! I read a bunch of stuff on identity theft, and all that someone needs to get access to your bank accounts and tax records and whatever else they want, is your name, birthday, address and a few personal details like your maiden name or the names of your kids. It does seem risky to leave all that out there for the world to see.

You’ve written three psychological thrillers, each is original and also compelling. Do you already have ideas for the next? Does it get harder each time?

I do. I’m working on something now, and I have a rough idea of the one after that. As I mentioned earlier, I also have a drawer full of notebooks and scraps of paper with ideas and sketches on them, some of which will make it into a novel at some point.

I think it gets easier in some ways and harder in others. Easier, because you get better at spotting what isn’t working – a character or scene or plot line – and you become more ruthless – now I don’t hesitate to cut something if I think it is not quite right.

Harder, because you start to worry about becoming repetitive. It’s not the writing itself – it’s the ideas. Other writers may be different but I can’t force ideas to come – all I can do is gather the scraps and wait for them to come into focus. It always feels a bit risky – what if they don’t come?

Do you have the plots of your novels worked out completely before you start writing or do you leave room for character and plot to develop as you write?

I have the characters, the situation they are put into, and the ending. I need all three before I start on a first draft. In particular, I have to have the ending. I have at least two manuscripts in a drawer that I got about 60,000 words into and realised I didn’t have an ending for. So I try to avoid that now.

Once I start I let the characters and plot go where they will. Often a character surprises me by doing or saying something I wasn’t planning, and that can lead to unexpected developments in the plot.

How important is a twist to you as a writer and a reader?

I think it’s important in a psychological thriller because it’s sort of the engine of the book – everything’s going along and then suddenly something happens and our understanding of the characters and events is totally changed – normally we realise that their situation is a lot worse than we thought. The twist is the way we get that understanding. It’s also fun, because readers know it’s coming and try to figure it out. It’s a bit like a whodunit – there’s an element of a game between the reader and writer.

However, the twist alone is not enough. You still need characters you can believe in and sympathise with and a villain who scares you, as well as an original idea for a plot.

Some historical fiction authors avoid reading other historical fiction. Do you read psychological thrillers for pleasure? If you do, do you work them out?

I tend not to read them when I’m writing or they kind of creep into my work, but I do read them at other times. Sometimes I work them out, but not often. I don’t think that being a writer of psychological thrillers necessarily helps – other writers approach the puzzles and problems totally differently. I’m often amazed (and jealous) at what they come up with.

What is your favorite novel of the year so far?

Gosh, it’s hard to choose. If I have to pick one, I’ll go for His Bloody Project. I thought it was really original, and I read it in an afternoon.

What are you reading at the moment?

I’m reading The Hidden Life of Trees, by Peter Wohlleben. It’s fascinating – he describes how trees communicate with each other, care for sick trees by providing them sugar and water through interconnected roots, and even have families, of a sort. It’s really changing how I think about my walks in the forest!

Reviews
After Anna
Killing Kate

For other stops on the tour, do take a look at the poster below.

copycat blog tour banner

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Acadie by Dave Hutchinson

Tor | 2017 (ebook: 5 September; Pb: 13 October) | c.100p | Review copy | Buy the bookAcadie by Dave Hutchinson

Duke Faraday is sleeping off the effects of his 150th birthday celebrations when he’s woken up with dire news. A probe is approaching their colony. Earth has found them. They must dismantle the whole enormous complex and move off, seeking safety in the darkness of space once more. Earth wants every one of them dead. Duke, the colony’s president, must do all he can to keep them alive. He can only hope that nobody does anything stupid with the drone, such as shoot it down. He doesn’t want to make Earth even more mad that it is already.

Acadie is a short novella by Dave Hutchinson, author of the highly original and prophetic Fractured Europe series, now complete. Hutchinson takes us away from Earth and into the realms of space, where mankind has the ability to alter itself – extra arms and legs are just the beginning. Earth itself is less keen on this tampering.

This is a very quick read at under an hour and, as with the best short stories, it left me wanting much more. There is definitely enough here to form the heart of an exciting and thought-provoking full-length novel. Dave Hutchinson is so good at coming up with ideas and backing them up with fantastic characters and such an enjoyable writing style. The wit is on display here, especially in the very likeable character of Duke.

There are hints of wonder as well as the stuff of nightmares, all told with humour and an eye for the curious. Giving nothing away, the ending packs an enormous punch. It is such a fun read. While it left me wanting much more, I certainly enjoyed what I was given. I just hope that Dave Hutchinson ventures into space again – and soon.

The Good Daughter by Karin Slaughter

HarperCollins | 2017 (13 July) | 512p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Good Daughter by Karin SlaughterTwenty-eight years ago Charlie Quinn’s life was ripped to pieces around her. Her father Rusty, a defence attorney, was notorious in the small town of Pikeville for his defence in court of the indefensible. As a result, his wife, known as Gamma, paid the ultimate price during a vengeful attack on their family home. Gamma was shot dead, Charlie’s elder sister Sam was shot and left for dead in a stream and Charlie herself had to run for her life. She did survive but that day could never be forgotten and its effect on her relationships could never be underestimated, even all these years later as she makes her own name as a lawyer, following in her father’s footsteps, always the good daughter.

Pikeville is hit by violence again. A shooting at the school leaves two people dead and a town in shock and bewilderment. Charlie was a crucial witness and what she sees makes her confront her own past, unlocking the secrets that she had kept buried within her for so many years. As her family gathers around her, truths must be revealed, however painful they might be, because the past never died.

The Good Daughter is a stand alone novel and it is superb. I haven’t read a Karin Slaughter novel before (that is true, I’m afraid) and so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect but I was surprised by the directions in which The Good Daughter took me. This isn’t a crime novel as such but instead a hugely impressive and engrossing scrutiny of a family and small town in America during their darkest days. It is entirely character driven and succeeds because the people that we meet inside this substantial novel are three-dimensional, vital and very real.

At the heart of the novel is the Quinn family and we move through past and present to understand what has happened to them and why. Charlie and Sam embody the novel’s friction and conflict but this expands to include Charlie’s husband Ben and, arguably the most dominating figure in the novel, her father Rusty. Rusty is a tour de force, with a public face. But as we learn something of his private self, it’s painfully revealing. Shadowing them all, though, is Gamma – that extraordinary wife and mother whose life was wiped out in an instant. And new crimes in the present day reflect the pain of the past, more victims, more hatred, more vengeance, forgiveness impossible. Some of this is quite painful to read. The most brutal elements are only revealed bit by bit and in the most shocking manner. The surprises in this novel are stunning.

This is a small town in which everyone knows everybody else and is fed by ignorance and prejudice. This is most apparent in the court scenes – female lawyers are expected to behave and dress in a certain way. There is a sense that this town carries its pain within and it’s difficult for those who live there ever to escape it. Pikeville is brilliantly drawn by Karin Slaughter, as are its buildings, its homes, courtrooms and schools.

The greatest achievement of The Good Daughter is Charlie Quinn. This novel presents a process of self-learning and understanding that holds the reader in a tight grip. This is a compelling and powerful read. It’s dark and painful, with some pitiable characters, but it is also about the difficult process of survival and healing and coming to terms with the truth. This is a significant novel, giving me so much more than I was expecting.

The Real-Town Murders by Adam Roberts

Gollancz | 2017 (24 August) | 240p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Real-Town Murders by Adam RobertsAlma is a private detective trying to make ends meet. She doesn’t have many cases to pick from and the few she has are hardly promising – a mother who thinks her son is getting thinner with every meal he eats and then there’s the case of the body found in the boot of a car. This could be one of those interesting lucrative cases until Alma learns that this is a brand new manufactured car, still in its factory and untouched by human hands. That it should have a dead body in it is an impossibility but the company want her to find out why, who and, most especially, how.

But as soon as Alma starts digging into the mysterious murder of civil servant Adam Kem, she realises that she’s out of her depth. Important people keep warning her off. Unfortunately, it doesn’t stop there. Some of them want her dead as well. But why? All she wants to do is drop the case but instead Alma finds herself on the run. It doesn’t help that she has to return to her home every four hours and four minutes to medicate her love Marguerite. If she misses that deadline, Marguerite will die. Quickly.

The Real-Town Murders is a brilliant detective thriller but that description only scratches the surface. This is Adam Roberts, after all, who yet again shows us what a wizard he is with words and ideas. He has created here a near future Britain and it is an almost empty place. That’s because 90% of the population is buried away in their apartments, some the size of coffins, to immerse themselves in the Shine – our internet’s future. The only time these people venture out is in their mesh suits – an automated robotic case which exercises these unconscious bodies. And if you’re unfortunate enough to find yourself in either prison or hospital, there you’ll be forced into the Shine – you’re so much easier to handle that way.

But the Shine has almost shut Britain down. The appeal of the real world has gone. There is a drive by some to get it back and that means giving the place a boost! The UK is now UK!-OK!, Reading is R!-Town (or Real-Town), and then there’s Basingstoked! and sWINdon. Staines is still Staines, though… The White Cliffs of Dover have been sculpted to draw in the crowds and make the British feel good about themselves – what could be better than having the monumental face of Shakespeare carved into the white cliffs to usher in tourists? But you only have to look around the streets and bars to see how ineffective this is.

This is worldbuilding at its very best. It’s complex, multi-layered, absolutely fascinating and so witty. This is very clever writing but it’s not difficult to read or get into, it’s a delight. And we see all of this crazy, really rather horrible world through Alma as she tries to work out what on earth is going on while always keeping an eye on that ticking clock. There are joys along the way – the argumentative talking door is a highlight – but there is also great tension and topnotch adventure as Alma runs from scrape to scrape.

This is also a novel full of fabulous women. The majority of the characters, both goodies and baddies, are female but this doesn’t feel forced. It’s just how it is. And Adam Roberts writes women so well. Alma is wonderful and so too is Marguerite, who sees herself as the Mycroft to Alma’s Sherlock. These two women have got themselves into a pitiable situation and the world around them is only making it worse.

There are some brilliant touches of science fiction that pay homage to such lovely things as Star Trek. There are extraordinary flying cars. There are hints of impossible things, all becoming real in the familiar mystery of the body in the locked room, which here gets such a fantastic twist.

The Real-Town Murders is a joy to read. Adam Roberts’ imagination is incredible, backed up by some truly beautiful writing. I think that it is more accessible than The Thing Itself, a book that I adored, and so I hope it gains the huge audience it deserves. Whatever will be next?!

I must also mention that all of Adam Roberts’ hardbacks have the most stunning covers. The Real-Town Murders is no different – gorgeous.

Other reviews
The Thing Itself

‘The origins of The Vintener Trilogy’ – guest post by Michael Jecks

Last week, Simon and Schuster published Blood of the Innocents, the final part of Michael Jecks’ Vintener Trilogy, a series of books that takes us back in time to that most troublesome of centuries – the 14th – and the Hundred Years War. To celebrate the publication, I’m delighted to host a fascinating in-depth guest post from the author. In it, Michael looks at the origins of the trilogy, its historical inspiration and its growth into a series that is now complete.

Blood of the Innocents by Michael JecksFirst, a little of what Blood of the Innocents is about

France, 1356: Ten years have passed since the battle of Crecy, and the English fighters are still abroad, laying siege to cities, towns and even small villages. Meanwhile the Prince of Wales raids across France to draw King John into a battle for sovereignty.

Berenger Fripper, having lost everything to the plague, is now captain of a company of mercenaries, but treachery and deceit dog him when his travels with the company lead him to Uzerche. And then his path crosses that of Prince Edward and his men as they embark on their latest chevauchée to bring death and disaster to the King of France’s subjects.

Enlisted as Vintener under Sir John de Sully, Berenger finds himself drawn into a new struggle. Can the English defeat the much larger French army, or will they find themselves finally overcome when their weary feet bring them at last to the field of battle near Poitiers…

The origins of The Vintener Trilogy

It was a surprise four years ago when my new editor at Simon and Schuster suggested I should consider a change of direction.

Until then I had been a cheerful writer of crime thrillers which happened to be set in the far-distant past – during the reign of King Edward II and his deplorable friend Sir Hugh le Despenser (and if all you know about those two was that Edward died in a particularly nasty manner in Berkley Castle, and that they were gay, then you need to read my books and prepare for a minor revisionist shock).

But no, my new editor wanted me to stop writing my Templar series, which had reached thirty-two titles at that stage, and consider a violent war series.

‘I thought you might have some ideas,’ she said, looking at me hopefully.

‘Medieval?’ I guessed. I knew she liked blood and stabbing weapons.

She smiled and nodded.

‘Um,’ I said.

Because starting out with a new concept is always tough. There are no rules, no existing plot-lines and characters – not even the outline of a landscape. Everything is open. Some people say that sitting down with a blank sheet of paper is terrifying when they are about to embark on a new novel; well, after thirty-two titles in a series in which I knew the landscape, history, people, legal issues, and already had a bank of seven or more different potential murders, I was happy to write more in that line. It was much harder to start from scratch.

And yet …

There was a period I had always wanted to cover: the Hundred Years War.

Fields of Glory by Michael JecksMany years ago – I’m guessing 1978 – I was a member of a mail order bookseller which specialised in history and warfare. One month there was a book with a wonderful write-up. It was The Hundred Years War, written by Desmond Seward. It gave only a brief introduction to the war, which is hardly surprising bearing in mind it covered so many events, but I was engaged by the colourful characters, from Sir Walter Manny, Lord John Talbot, Sir John Fastolf, the Duke of Bedford, to the Kings of both countries. Later I read Jonathan Sumption’s books for more detail, yet Seward’s book was so vividly written, the author so obviously enthusiastic about his subject, that I was gripped.

I would write about the Hundred Years War, then, but that was little help. When you are confronted with a new project, you have a series of difficult questions to answer: how should it be written, and from whose perspectives? Should it be a story about the rich and famous, about Kings and their avarice, or a tale about the scruffy fellows at the bottom of society? And which period of the war should I cover?

I wasn’t overly keen on Agincourt, since so many others have marched behind that banner – in fact I rather liked the idea of starting with Sluys, or one of the chevauchees launched by King Edward III, but then I had a stroke of luck.

If you love books, you tend to recommend them to others, and lend your copies. Often they don’t come back. One book I was very annoyed to lose was “Quartered Safe Out Here”, by George MacDonald Fraser. It was the story of his experiences during the Burma campaign. He fought under General Slim, stopping the Japanese and crushing them. A great warrior, Slim was an inspirational leader who had joined as an ordinary soldier in 1914, fought through the hell of Gallipoli, and rose through the ranks purely on the basis of his own merit and courage. The ordinary troops adored him: GM Fraser said, “he had the head of a general with the heart of a private soldier.”

“Quartered Safe Out Here” is the best war memoir I have read. MacDonald Fraser wrote about his platoon, Nine Section. Suddenly I had a vision of a vintaine of men, archers marching across France, rarely knowing what each day would bring, trudging ever onwards, cold, wet and bored – their hunger and thirst interspersed with flashes of pillage and drunkenness – and occasional bouts of terror. I could look at the motivations of each soldier, his background, his reasons for exchanging hearth and home and comfort for the dangerous life of a medieval soldier.

I loved it!

So I selected a group of men. I had a rich palette to choose from: Falstaffian characters, ruffians, the semi-sorcerers of the gunpowder-makers and gunners, and then, of course, the deplorable mercenary types. And as soon as I started I realised that my main issue would be writing this rag-tag group of men so that modern readers could identify with them.

Don’t get me wrong: I am a firm believer that the society that gave us Boccaccio and Chaucer was not so dissimilar to our modern version. People have not changed radically in outlook or behaviour, but murder is more frowned upon in the present age. The idea of depicting an army on the rampage, slaughtering all within reach, raping women and behaving with abhorrent disregard for others – and depicting them as sympathetic characters or heroes? That would be tough.

If I have a rule as a historical writer, it is that I will not lie. I could not ignore the baser acts of the English in France. I wanted to show them. For that I hit on the idea of writing from the perspective of a French woman dragged into the fighting, who wanted only to escape. Bringing her into the story balanced it, allowing me to look at the war from the point of view of those affected by it. We are used to pictures of refugees trudging their way across the countryside trying to find safety. The Second World War had many images of peasants with overfilled carts; the Vietnam War, the Bosnian War, the Russian attacks on Chechnya, Georgia and Ukraine, the wars in Iraq and Syria all have their victims. I wanted to show that none of this is new. History repeats itself.

There was one thing I was determined to do with this first novel, and that was to exclude the King and his top advisers. I wanted this to be a story of ordinary soldiers. However, there was one aspect I had to look at.

Historians tend to fall into one of two categories: those who believe Edward had no intention of fighting a major battle – he was a terrorist bringing a wave of brutality to the French countryside, and did all he could to evade the French when he realised they were hurrying to catch him; or those who say that he had a deliberate war plan – that he force-marched his men to Paris to torment the French into joining battle, and led the French to the field he had chosen many years before: Crécy.

I had to try to show how Edward III was thinking.

My immediate thought was to pick a servant who could listen with brazen impudence to what his superiors were planning, but that didn’t quite hack it for me. A cheeky servant is rather a cliché nowadays, and I didn’t think that a man who spent his time obviously listening in to the King’s war-planning meetings would have a good life-expectancy. I had to think up a new character.

Blood on the Sand by Michael JecksI didn’t get my man until I recalled a grave in Crediton’s Church of the Holy Cross and The Mother of Him Who Hung Thereon. Up at the far right-hand side behind the altar there is a tomb dedicated to a Sir John de Sully. He was a knight of that period. He fought in his first battle, possibly, at Bannockburn in 1316. After that he had a starring role in almost every major battle of the 1300s, rising to become one of the Black Prince’s most trusted men, still fighting with his Prince in 1367, when he would have been in his 80s (I assume more in an advisory capacity than as a warrior). He was so famous and respected that he became one of the early knights of the Order of the Garter, and died greatly honoured at the age of about 106. Yes, that isn’t a typo.

With Sir John I had a character whom I could use to great effect as a link between my vintaine force of archers and the main plans and issues of the English King on the march. My archers would be a vintaine serving under him in this book, and he would give the perspective of the commanders without actually being a part of them. Through him my archers would get their view of the campaign and planning.

I had my men, I had their commander, and now I was leaning towards the march to Crécy for my book. That would make a good climax. Job done, I thought.

But as I planned and outlined my story, it became clear that there was more for me to look at. For example, when the battle of Crécy was done, the English marched on. Edward was determined to take a port to facilitate further incursions into France and chose Calais to be his bridgehead. He would take it and hold it for England. Clearly the capture of Calais would have to become a sequel to the first book about Crécy. And again, after Calais, there was the horror of the Black Death, and the subsequent return to battle that ended in the battle of Poitiers.

So my book would have to become a trilogy, and a trilogy more about a small group of men and how they coped with life in the army, but later on, how they coped with the most appalling tragedy Europe has coped with – the plague.

There are always a lot of problems when writing, such as the difficulty of knowing when to stop researching and start writing. I have always firmly believed that it’s essential to visit a place before trying to write about it. One thing I always try to do is paint a specific area, because by analysing a scene as a painter, I find myself looking more carefully at individual features of the landscape.

I was fortunate enough to be able to go to Poitiers on holiday in 1315 while planning Blood of the Innocents, and there I found the main battlefield and memorial, which was very touching – it’s dedicated to the fallen of the French, Gascon and English armies. I took a lot of photos all about the area, and planted it firmly in my mind by making a few sketches.

The trilogy is a strong story of how war affects victors and victims, the soldiers, but also the refugees. I don’t gloss over the way that the English treated their enemies or the local populace. It wouldn’t be fair to do so. But I try to give a feel for how the English thought, felt, and reacted which is, I hope, fair. At the end of the day, it’s up to the readers to give their opinion – so, I hope you enjoy the books, and hopefully that they inspire you to find out more about this astonishing period of English and French history.

Happy reading!

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Defender by G.X. Todd

Headline | 2017 (Pb: 10 August) | 480p | review copy and bought copy | Buy the book

Defender by GX ToddThe world as we know it has ended. Just a few short years ago the majority of people listened to the voices in their heads that instructed them to kill – friends or family, strangers on the street, and then themselves. Those who survived have learned to hate and fear anyone with a voice inside their head, and with good reason, but what they might not know is that among the survivors there are those who still hear Voice, but its new words are not what they would expect. Pilgrim lives with Voice in his head and when it tells him to stop by the side of the road and buy homemade lemonade from Lacey, a young girl with nothing but her courage and brains left, he does what he’s told.

So begins Pilgrim and Lacey’s road journey in search of Lacey’s sister and niece. Lacey insists that they’re still alive, although she hasn’t seen or heard from them in the eight years or so since the world’s fall into bloody violence. Pilgrim has nowhere else to go and so, driven on by Voice and then by another waif that they collect along the way, he takes on his new role of protecting Lacey, keeping Voice very much to himself.

Defender is the first of a series of four novels called The Voices and takes us into territory reminiscent of Stephen King’s finest novel (in my opinion) The Stand and Todd’s homage is a fine tribute. The world building is absolutely fantastic, with its long stretches of dusty road, abandoned by all but empty vehicles and the occasional solitary soul or, and these should be avoided, mysterious convoy. Houses, towns, motels are places of refuge, supplies and the utmost danger. After eight years of apocalypse a lot of things are running out. Life hasn’t yet found a way. People have become feral. This is frightening stuff, especially when you realise that one of the main characters is a young teenage girl who is having innocence forced from her with almost every step of the journey.

There is nothing safe about this new world and Defender takes us into some bleak places and situations. Predators lurk and Pilgrim and Lacey have a knack of falling into the wrong hands. This includes sexual violence which, I will admit, is not something I like to read about and so I did skim these sections while wishing that they weren’t there. To me, these scenes didn’t come with the significance or resonance I felt they would have in reality. But this is just a thing of mine and so is my fault rather than the novel’s, which has a great deal of difficult themes to contend with and otherwise does so brilliantly.

Pilgrim and Lacey are both such deeply involving characters to follow. Pilgrim in particular is fascinating and I grew very fond of him. The novel moves between the two and so we spend good time with them both. Voice has a personality of its own and it plays such an intriguing and effective role. I loved its tone and couldn’t wait to learn more of it. How characters deal with having such a voice in their heads constantly is a big appeal of the novel and I’m really looking forward to seeing how this develops in future books.

This is the first novel in a series and so there is much still to be revealed. There are rumours of other travellers, of people on the hunt for those who can hear Voice as well as much more that is barely touched on at this early stage. It leaves the reader prepared and ready for more. But there have been shocks along the way and we know that in the second novel much will have changed.

Defender finishes at a good point. There may be more to come but it is also pleasingly complete in itself and so is a very satisfying read. It’s disturbing and menacing, dusty and heated, and it is also immersive and extremely accomplished. G.X. Todd writes so well. The way she gets into the heads of her characters is wonderful and what she does with them is both shocking and thrilling. This is one of those books that does not let you put it down. It keeps you enthralled from start to finish and is a fast and exciting read. Not only is Defender the first in the series, it’s also Todd’s debut and is an astonishing one – it’s hard to imagine a better beginning to The Voices. Who knows where they’ll take us next? I’ll be listening.

‘Historical sources for Another Woman’s Husband’, Guest post by Gill Paul

Another Woman's Husband by Gill PaulEarlier this month, Headline published the latest novel by Gill Paul, Another Woman’s Husband, a novel that brings together the stories of two significant women in 20th-century British royal history – Wallis Simpson and Diana, Princess of Wales. I’ll be posting my review in November for the paperback release, but, in the meantime, I’m delighted to host here a guest post from Gill in which she discusses the historical sources for her novel.

First, a little about what Another Woman’s Husband is about:

Two women, divided by time, bound by a secret…

1911. Aged just fifteen, Mary Kirk and Wallis Warfield meet at summer camp. Their friendship will survive heartbreaks, continents, and the demands of the English crown, until it is shattered by one unforgivable betrayal…

1997. Kendall’s romantic break in Paris with her fiance is interrupted when the taxi in front crashes suddenly. The news soon follows: Princess Diana is dead. Trying to forget what she has witnessed, Kendall returns home, where the discovery of a long-forgotten link to Wallis Simpson, the Duchess of Windsor, will lead her to the truth of a scandal which shook the world…

Historical Sources

When I decided to write about Wallis Warfield and Diana, Princess of Wales, both of them controversial women, the first choice was which of the dozens of books about them both I could trust. Back when I was studying history at uni, we were taught to question sources. Who wrote it? What audience were they writing for? What were they trying to achieve by writing? What information did they have and what did they not know?

Sometimes it makes sense to read the most recent biographies first, since you can assume their authors have read the preceding ones. Anne Sebba’s That Woman is a brilliant read and highly recommended, although I don’t agree with her assertion, originally proposed in Michael Bloch’s biography, that Wallis suffered from Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome. The evidence for this seems flimsy: large hands, male bone structure, deep voice. None of her lovers ever reported that she had male characteristics in her genitalia; she was clearly a sexually confident woman so it seems to me a curious leap to make.

The first-ever biography of Wallis was written in 1937 by a woman called Edwina H. Wilson. Wallis suspected Mary Kirk of having collaborated with the author, but I don’t think she did. There would have been far more detail in the childhood sections if she had, and surely a more negative view of her character, since it was written the year after Wallis and Mary fell out.

Wallis’s autobiography, published in 1956, is fascinating because it allowed me to hear her voice, but it contains a lot of revisionism. For example, according to her, Ernest was present when the Prince sent an on-board telegram just as she embarked for New York in March 1933. He wasn’t, and it was a clear sign of the Prince’s personal interest in her at an early stage. Wallis tries to make out that until the summer of 1935 his friendship was more with Ernest than with her – but I beg to differ.

Mary Kirk is all but written out of Wallis’s autobiography but I managed to find a biography of her, written by her sister and niece. It’s a short, self-published, photocopied transcript of letters that Mary wrote to her sister Anne, and replies that her sister imagines she might have sent, along with interspersed explanations. A strange book altogether, but immensely valuable to let me hear Mary’s voice and the phrases she used, such as “rich as mud” and “I’m on the outs with Wallis”.

When it comes to Diana there is as yet no academic, properly verified and footnoted account of her life, although she richly deserves one. Andrew Morton is the obvious starting place when it comes to biographies, as he is immensely well connected in royal circles even twenty years after Diana’s death. But his bestselling book was secretly based on interviews with Diana herself, was written as her marriage was imploding and had her seal of approval, so it clearly had its own agenda and its own bias.

I decided not to write about Diana as a character but to let her be a ‘ghost’ in the novel, while others investigated the circumstances of her death. My time frame was very tight – 30th August to 28th December 1997 – and I had to be careful not to include information discovered after that date, which Alex in the novel wouldn’t have known about. I watched the Panorama documentary made two weeks after the crash, as well as the ITV and Channel 4 ones made the following year. Martyn Gregory’s account Diana: The Last Days seemed the most trustworthy of dozens of books about her death – not least because he lists his sources in endnotes – and with his help I pieced together a timeline of when information was revealed. I couldn’t include the strange story of James Adanson, a paparazzo who may or may not have been driving the white Fiat and who died soon after the crash in mysterious circumstances… But I think there were already enough anomalies to give Alex plenty of material for his own fictitious documentary.

Other posts
Guest post: Gill Paul, author of No Place for a Lady, ‘on feminism, bereavement and squeamishness’
A review of The Secret Wife

For other stops on the tour, please take a look at the poster below.