Just in time for Veterans Day, I have a Q&A with Annabel Fielding, author of The Pearl and the Carnelian, a novel about 1930s Britain from the perspective of two women who find each other in the midst of a society that will soon be seriously undermined by war. An interesting topic, an innovative perspective—this is the kind of story that appeals to me. But as sometimes happens, I had no time in my interview schedule for a one-on-one discussion with the author, so her publicist and I settled on adding her to the Bookshelf instead. First, though, a quick look at her book, released on September 21, 2016.
Britain, 1934. Hester Blake, an ambitious girl from an industrial Northern town, finds a job as a lady’s maid in a small aristocratic household. Despite their impressive title and glorious past, the Fitzmartins are crumbling under the tribulations of the new century. In the cold isolation of these new surroundings, Hester ends up hopelessly besotted with her young mistress, Lady Lucy. Fragile and enthralling, Lucy can weave fascinating stories like a spider weaves her web. Armed with shrewd wits and an iron will to match, she is determined to carve out a new life for herself.
They are drawn to each other as kindred spirits, eager to take advantage of the new opportunities the world has to offer. Moreover, soon Hester gets to accompany Lady Lucy on her London Season, and readily plunges herself into the heady mix of passion, art, and excitement of the glittering city.
However, there are plenty of dark undercurrents swirling beneath the majestic imperial capital. The country is rife with discontent, and radical political movements are growing in influence day by day. There is a controversy, surrounding the new dictatorships of Europe, and struggles are breaking out in the press as well as in the streets. The hushed whispers of yet another war are still rare, but the battle for hearts and minds has already started, and Lucy’s talent can be employed for very sinister ends.
Meanwhile, Hester seems to be harboring some secrets of her own...
And now, the questions and answers.
How did you become involved with the themes presented in your book?
I have always been interested in the unsung women in history, in the roles they got to play in all the great processes. The influential leaders, the quiet workers behind the scenes, the morally dubious schemers. All the good, the bad, and the ugly.
What was the hardest part of writing this book?
Some parts of Lucy’s POW. In particular, inventing eloquent arguments for the political position I hate.
Where did the inspiration for The Pearl and The Carnelian come from?
Short period dramas that followed in the wake of Downton Abbey; not in the way you might think, though. You see, quite a lot of them are set in the interwar period, and quite a lot of them involve a certain type of card-carrying villain: a Blackshirt Supporter, or, alternatively, a Nazi Sympathizer. She—it tends to be a lady—is obviously evil and irredeemably despicable. She is a secondary character, or sometimes she only appears in one episode. Her motives are not explored or explained; but that’s natural, since she only exists to underline the virtues of the show's protagonists. She is usually modeled after one of the older Mitford sisters; with none of the complexity, though.
And ... well, I wanted to dig a little deeper. I wanted to find out why. No evil simply springs up in the middle of a perfect world (in this case—a family values-suffused Good Old England). It grows from its very soil; it’s nourished by its very culture. And, the more biographies I’ve read, the more material I’ve uncovered, the clearer I understood it, and the more I wished to articulate it.
So, here is a novel, partly narrated by the black sheep in a respectable, country house-dwelling family. A genuine black sheep, I mean. Not a vaguely rebellious, moderately spirited young lady.
How did you decide to take on the challenge of writing a book?
I cannot say it was a weighted decision; the idea simply burned too brightly for me to discard.
Do you write more by planning or intuition, or some combination of the two?
I am definitely a great proponent of careful planning. It makes the actual writing process much smoother, and, I might even say, helps to avoid the writer’s block.
Who are your favorite authors/authors you find most inspirational?
I would say, Ellen Kushner, for her engrossing plots and fabulous queer characters. Also, Sofia Samatar, for her unparalleled world building and mesmerizing writing.
Do you model your writing off a particular author or book?
As I’ve said, Sofia Samatar became a great inspiration for me in terms of her vivid writing. And, of course, few authors can portray lesbian relationships in historical settings as evocatively, as Sarah Waters...
What is your ultimate goal as a writer?
I would say, that I write to give the shape and expression to all the worlds growing in my mind. Perhaps, growing isn’t necessarily an appropriate word; after all, the actual creation process involves careful construction and precise planning. However, the initial ideas seem to bloom in my thoughts, like red flowers; they demand my attention and nudge me to tend to them.
Are you working on anything new at the moment?
Actually, I am! I am still in the research stage, and, of course, it is a little early to discuss anything particular. I can only say three things for sure: it is going to be a fantasy with a minimum amount of magic, if any at all; it is not going to be set in pseudo-medieval-kinda-Europe; it will definitely involve lesbian romantic subplots.
Thanks to Annabel and to Smith Publicity for the questions and answers and for the free PDF of the book. Interested readers can find The Pearl and the Carnelian at Amazon.com.