With Jeffrey Manton
Tell me your story.
I am long-listed for the 2016 Fabula Press prize and won second prize in the HNS short story prize – both stories will be published this year. A career in marketing led me to work with the news media in New York, Boston, Paris and London before turning to writing fiction while working as a member of the Copyright Tribunal and being a presiding magistrate. I am an Arvon Creative Writing Foundation student whose mentors include Pulitzer Prize nominee Dick Vaughan, Orange Prize nominee Liz Jenson, and Booker long- listed John Murray. Oh, and I am a member of the Author’s Society, and I love to blog.
Tell me about your latest book.
The Duchess of Windsor’s Dog (published by Fabula Press in March 2017) is about Wallis Windsor’s flight to the Bahamas during the Second World War with her Cairn terrier and the former King of England. Wallis is run out of Europe by the new Queen; then faces death threats from the British secret service; then the Germans try to kidnap her. Is it really all worth it? When she meets a man on the boat, she finds herself torn between what she ought to do and what she want to do. Why not live her own life? While she’s still got one.
Where do you get your information and ideas for your books?
Wallis Windsor – Mrs Simpson as she was – is a reviled figure; portrayed as a gold-digger (some truth in that); obsessed by jewels and clothes (a poverty stricken childhood); and desperate to be Queen (nothing could be further from the truth). New generations have no idea who she was or the impact she had on history when the most iconic figure of the 1930s chucked it all in for her – twice-married Wallis from Baltimore. Then you flip through photographs, read letters, I met people that knew her ; there is another side: witty, amusing; extraordinarily creative and stylish; wanting to please. What is forgotten under the weight of propaganda is the superlative job she and her husband did as Governor and his wife on the Bahamas during the war – it goes to show they could have done the job of King and Queen of England if given a chance. So you don’t rewrite history – you still present that superficial and even selfish side of the woman – but you show how very, very human she is. Oh, and she loved her dogs. A photograph of her looking soft with one of them gave me the spark…
Do you have a specific process when writing a book?
I don’t just let the muse flow. I think a reader buys a product – and that must have plot and structure. So I research, I make notes on character – but then I plot the story out in detail. It may change but there is a structure from the start; I know how the character will change and adapt. Then I write the first draft – every morning, every morning – then I go back, revise, perhaps add more plot to ensure every chapter ends on a deep breath. Every chapter is a story. I do then seek criticism which is tough – readers are hard, they have to be – and I work with that. If you can’t take it – don’t write.
Do you have a writing/reading quirk or ritual?
I listen to music from the period and I might look at YouTube film to remind me of a movement or a look. Like an actor, I get into character.
What is something you’ve learned about yourself through the process of writing?
That I am very disciplined as a person – I can write every day. I may edit it all out – but I can do it.
What do you think makes a good story?
Character, suspense, learning. We all want a motivated character – good or bad – but we also want a plot that keeps us thinking, turning pages. Far too many novels get through the net that lack pace. I also want to learn about a period as well as a character; but not one written through today’s eyes – too much of that gets done by the way. If I read one more WW2 novel with somebody saying: ‘here’s the thing’ – I will scream.
If you could only read one book over and over, which one would you pick and why?
Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth. Yes, it is dated; but it is a story that carries you away; the characters and motivations; the human foibles, the good and bad; the sheer sweep of the tale with riches to rags; and a woman that seems so very modern despite it all – Lily Bart, surely one of the most human of any heroines.
What books are currently on your night stand?
Er – actually it is my kindle…on which I have Winifred Holby’s South Riding – a rediscovered on a book shelf gem – and then five Evelyn Anthony novels – if you don’t know her then go and look. She was the best seller of the late 80s and 1990s – good espionage books, great female characters, easy to read but thought-provoking. I don’t do literary fiction…
How do you organize your books?
Kindle is hopeless for that…I keep favorites on shelves by author; that’s about it.
You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?
Edith Wharton, of course – touch of old New York. Mary Wesley – a voice of sense from my mother’s generation. And Sidney Sheldon – for more stories.
Thank you for joining me on Of Quills & Vellum today, Jeffrey! It was a pleasure talking with you.