Interview with Suzannah Dunn

Launched in 1990 with her debut novel, "Darker Days Than Usual", Suzannah Dunn wrote a further five critically acclaimed contemporary novels, and a short story collection, published by Flamingo, before writing her first historical novel, "The Queen of Subtleties", which was published in 2004. She has since written a further three bestselling historical novels, "The Sixth Wife", "The Queen’s Sorrow" and "The Confession of Katherine Howard" (a Richard & Judy pick in 2011).

The Daily Telegraph describes Suzannah as "A remarkable writer, a lyricist of ordinary life and ordinary people transfigured by extreme emotions".

The May Bride is her new book.


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Suzannah Dunn's latest novel about the girlhood of Jane Seymour

TT: Your earlier works were contemporary fiction – was the change to historical fiction caused by the result of anything in particular, or was it always an area of interest?

SD: I didn’t think of it as a change, at the time, (and, in a way, I still don’t). I was simply thinking about starting a new novel, which, for me, means starting with a character, and it occurred to me that I’d always been interested in Anne Boleyn. This was back around 2000, before the current resurgence in Tudor interest (it was before The Other Boleyn Girl was published or filmed). Of course the Tudors are always popular but, back then, I couldn’t remember the details, bar the (painfully) obvious ones. So, I had to do a lot of reading/research. What drew me to her was not her being a historical character but precisely the opposite: she was the quintessential modern woman, in her time.

I don’t think of myself as a writer of historical fiction – I’m writing fiction, and the job (as it were) is exactly the same when I’m writing about something or someone who might be alive now. My job is to make someone alive on the page.

TT: Do you remember what first sparked your interest in sixteenth century history?

SD: My mum! Which means Jean Plaidy. My mum isn’t a big reader but she used to get Jean Plaidys out of Potters Bar library, and she’d talk to me (she might not be a big reader but she’s a big talker!) about what she was reading.

TT: "The Queen of Subtleties" was an intriguing new perspective on an age-old story. Was the story-line already in your mind when you researched Anne Boleyn, or did you discover something that led you to it?

SD: I was reading widely because – as I said above – I knew just about nothing about the Tudor era; I was reading about food/cooking and came across a single sentence in a book, saying that all the cooks in Henry VIII’s palace were men, but his ‘subtleties’ (marzipan/icing sugar sculptures, basically, which were the centrepieces of feasts and banquets) were made by a woman, a Mrs Cornwallis. And it occurred to me that she, too, whoever she was, was a woman in a man’s world, just as Anne Boleyn was. From what I came to understand of Anne Boleyn, she relished being a woman in a man’s world, it was kind of what made her tick – and I felt it might be interesting to have a contrast to that, with the confectioner.

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Suzannah Dunn's novel set at the court of Anne Boleyn

TT: You write your historical fiction in a very modern idiom – for readers of more traditional historical fiction, this can come as a shock. What do you think are the advantages of your style?

SD: I have to confess that it wasn’t a particularly well-thought-out strategy, when I started it! It was instinct, really. I was writing about Anne Boleyn and she was, as I say, a very modern woman. She was forthright/direct, uncompromising and, often, frankly, rude – that was what she was – and, so, it was essential that I convey that to the reader. To have her talking in the slightly stilted, formal manner which seems to be a feature of a fair bit of ‘historical fiction’ (less so, nowadays, definitely, but I think it’s still the case to some extent) just wouldn’t cut it; it would give entirely the wrong impression of her.

Also, though, I didn’t know how to write dialogue in that slightly stilted way! I have always been primarily a dialogue writer, it’s where I’m happiest and, I think, if I may say so, probably where my skill, such as it is, lies. And in my defence, I’d say that we have no idea how people spoke, back then; we know how they wrote – those of them who wrote – but, of course, that’s different.

And back to what I said about my not writing ‘historical’ fiction: we’re supposed to be there, now, with the characters, as if they are alive at the moment when we’re reading about them. We’re supposed to be with them, alongside them, in that world; we’re sharing a world (if the writing’s working well, I mean). Those characters wouldn’t have thought of themselves as talking in an old-fashioned way – just as none of us think of ourselves as talking in an accent (it’s only other people who think of us as talking in an accent!). If I were to write in cod-Tudor, we’d be observing those characters from some way off, as curiosities, just as if I wrote a contemporary character talking in ‘cockney’.

Anyway, I enjoyed writing the so-called modern dialogue for these characters, and it seemed in a sense to work (for some readers! – but you can’t please all the people all the time!), so I continued with it. But, if you look carefully, it’s less so, in the later books, the language is less in-yer-face modern because those narrators and characters are less in-yer-face modern than Anne was.

TT: I found the ending of "Queen of Sorrows" quite disturbing. Was the end in your mind before you began, or did the characters themselves take the story there?

SD: Actually, in that particular case, the characters – the situation they were in, the situation they had made for themselves – took it there. I have to confess that I feel the "Queen of Sorrows" is the weakest of my Tudor-set novels, and I really didn’t enjoy writing it, perhaps not least because the subject matter (Mary Tudor’s decline, the persecution and burnings) was so disturbing.

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Suzannah Dunn's novel about the reign of Mary I

TT: You are currently undertaking a tour with the National Trust. For this tour, will you be discussing your books or talking more widely on Tudor related topics?

SD: Oh, talking more widely, definitely! I see that as the point of the evenings, really. I don’t want to stick to the books, because, well, if anyone’s interested in them, then they can go and read them, can’t they! I don’t just want to repeat what’s there in the books, is what I mean: there’d be no point in that. The evenings will be, I hope, much more than that. That said, I am of course very happy to answer questions about/discuss them, if/when asked.

TT: With so many fascinating characters in the Tudor period, how have you selected the protagonists for your novels?

SD: I’ve tried to choose, each time, someone on the sidelines, as it were: someone close to the action, but also at a remove. That way, I’m avoiding just re-telling history as we already know it.

TT: Researching facts about individual lives is one thing, how do you build up enough background knowledge for the surroundings to seem realistic?

SD: Reading. There’s no way around that one! I just have to read a lot of books about the period. And luckily for me, there’s no shortage of books on the Tudors….

TT: Do you think authors of fiction should stay with known facts, or is it acceptable for facts to be manipulated in novels?

SD: Hmm, this is an interesting one: well, it’s the crucial question, really. Because, of course, the very word, ‘fiction’…well, it does actually mean ‘made up’, doesn’t it! I tend to think of pieces of fiction as, to a large extent, exercises in ‘What if..?’. That’s the very purpose of fiction, it seems to me. Personally, I’ll do my own fictionalising, on the whole, in the gaps between the facts that we know from the historical record. (And despite everything that we know, or think we know, there are endless gaps, believe me!). So, I wouldn’t want to change something that’s pretty well established as fact, no. Also, I put an ‘author’s note’ on each novel, to try to make clear for the reader what I’ve taken as fact and what I’ve invented.

TT: There are many aspiring fiction writers – do you have any advice to share that you wish someone had given you before you began?

SD: Writing is only the half of it; you can’t write it until you’ve imagined it, until you’ve done the imaginative work. It’s taken twenty-five years for me even to half-accept that the imaginative side of it IS ‘work’ – that I’m not failing to work if, instead, I’m thinking, all day, sometimes, rather than getting anything down on the page or screen.

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Suzannah Dunn's story of the imprisonment of Lady Jane Grey

TT: Which historical novelists do you admire most, and what have you learnt from them?

SD: Just as I don’t think of myself as a writer of ‘historical fiction’, so I’m not really a reader of it. (Nor a viewer of costume dramas, either – not even ‘Wolf Hall’!) But a novel I enjoyed very much recently was Livi Michael’s "Succession", set during the Wars of the Roses (about which I know nothing, I’m ashamed to admit). Livi isn’t – or hasn’t been, until now – a historical novelist (and nor, by her own admission, did she, either, know anything, when she started, about the Wars of the Roses!), and I’d very much enjoyed her contemporary-set fiction, which was why I wanted to see how she’d approached the fifteenth century. Well, with panache, is the answer! She immersed herself in the chronicles of the period, and then sort of adapted their style to make it her own. Hard to explain, in the abstract – you’d have to read the book – but I’d been thinking for a while of trying a new approach and although I’m not going to copy this one (because it’s hers!), it really gave me food for thought.

TT: Are you a full time writer, or do you have to juggle writing with other responsibilities?

SD: For the last decade, I have been writing more or less full-time, at home. My son’s started secondary school, now, though ( ie growing up, much more independent), and I’m hankering to get back into the wider world (but just part-time! …so that I can still have time to write). I have found staying full-time at home to be stultifying – there’s been an awful lot of staring at the wall, over the past couple of years! So, I am hoping to go back to what I was doing before he was born – which was teaching, at university.

TT: What is your writing day like?

SD: See above! – a lot of staring at the wall! It’s like a lot of people’s working day, I suppose, but with a later start…I am not a morning person, and that’s an understatement. I start work at the beginning of it (which, admittedly, would be a lot of people’s coffee break…), and I end at the end of it. (That end is considerably later when I’m away from home – I like to start late and finish late, but actually, I also have the luxury of taking a chunk out, in the middle, to go swimming. And, thinking about it, if I’m honest, I’ve been finding it harder, lately, to get back to serious work afterwards: most of my work, these days, is being done in the (late!) morning and over lunchtime. Less staying power?! - I’m getting older?!

TT: Do you have a favourite place and time to write?

SD: See above... but no, basically! It gets done at my desk, which is in my bedroom, during the working day, or sometimes I’ll work on the table downstairs.

TT: Can you tell us anything about your next project? Are you staying with historical fiction, or will you return to more contemporary settings?

SD: I am trying to write about the period when Mary Tudor came (surprisingly) to the throne, and her half-sister, Elizabeth, became her heir; I’ve long been fascinated by the intensely difficult relationship between the pair of them, during those five years, and how that made the Elizabeth that we know (or, at least, think we know). I’m aiming to tell the story from the point of view of one of Mary’s laundresses, who’s placed in Elizabeth’s household as a spy. (Mary did place spies in Elizabeth’s household – which Elizabeth knew very well.)

TT: Thank you for talking to Tudor Times. We hope you enjoy the National Trust tour.

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Suzannah Dunn's novel about Katherine Parr