Molly Brown Interview


DM) In “Invitation to a Funeral”, where does history end and fiction start?

MB) Though the book features several real life characters and events, the story is fictional. I spent three years researching the background for the novel and tried to be as accurate as possible about the politics and living conditions of the times, but for the purposes of the story, I took liberties with dates. For example, I included a number of real life incidents that occurred over a period of several years, and squeezed them into one month in the autumn of 1676. I also took liberties with the reasons behind certain events, though once again, I tried to remain true to the characters, and the spirit of the times.

DM) Which character are you most similar to?

MB) None of them, I hope, though I have days when I feel like Nell Gwyn’s mother.

DM) The characters are very life-like. Have any history students ever confused some of the fictional characters with non-fiction ones?

MB) Not as far as I know. But I’m a bit old to hang out with students, so I really have no idea if I’ve confused them or not.

DM) On one hand, I’d expect praise from historians for bringing history to life. On the other, I’d expect criticism for not staying 99% true to history. What have you found more of?

MB) So far, touch wood, I’ve had nothing but positive reactions from historians.

If I’d ever tried to imply the book was based on fact, historians would have good reason to object, but I’ve included an author’s note at the beginning to make it very clear the book is fiction.

DM) It felt in a way like the story could happen at almost any time in history. To me, the references to the war with the Dutch were similar to people referring to W.W.II. Was the war that similar for the time?

MB) With any story set in any period in history, people will still be people and their reaction to traumatic events will be essentially the same. The characters in Invitation To A Funeral who refer back to the Dutch war of 1664 to ’67 are all people who were personally involved – and damaged – in some way. In the case of Aphra Behn, she’d agreed to act as a spy for Charles II and ended up penniless and stranded behind enemy lines. As a result of her “public service”, she was imprisoned for debt – so she carries some psychological scars, as would anyone who had been betrayed by those she’d risked her life to help. The experience of those actually involved in the fighting was horrific. Recruiting was a real problem for the Stuart navy – everyone knew the pay and conditions were terrible. So if men wouldn’t sign up voluntarily, they were forced into service. A man might be working in the fields or just walking along, bothering no one, when all of a sudden he’d be abducted by a press gang who would drag him away and deliver him to a ship. Once they’d been press ganged into the navy, there was no money in the treasury to pay them a wage. Seamen were paid with tickets that were supposed to be redeemable for cash, but in most cases turned out to be worthless. There was no money to provide the men with uniforms, so they wore whatever they had on when they’d had the misfortune to run into a press gang. Many were abducted on the church steps as they’d come out after a service, and went into battle in their Sunday suits. And when that Sunday suit was finally worn to shreds, they went into battle dressed in rags. The food – what there was of it – was appalling. Bread was stale and covered in mold; meat was often crawling with maggots. Men who were wounded or became ill were stripped of their clothes (which were passed on to their shipmates) and were abandoned, naked, on beaches. Dreadful, yes. But like World War II? I don’t think so. There were no great moral issues involved and no real threat to public safety; it was just the latest in a long line of skirmishes over trade routes, with another to follow in a few years’ time. In some ways, I suppose that makes it worse; the cause for which these people suffered was so trivial.

DM) Have you written any other stories from this time period?

MB) In 1991, I was asked to contribute a short story to an anthology called “Royal Crimes”, which was a collection of crime stories with some connection to the Royal Family, either past, present, or future. I decided to go for the past, and figured that a good basis for a crime story would be to find a couple of historical characters who didn’t like each other.

I went to the library, looking for inspiration, and came across a book called “Royal Mistresses”. I started flicking through the pages and came across Nell Gwyn and Louise de Keroualle, rival mistresses of Charles II. I knew at once that they’d be perfect lead characters in a story – not only did they hate each other, they were funny. The only trouble was, I didn’t know anything about the era in which they’d lived. I didn’t even know what the term “Restoration” meant; I had a vague idea it was something to do with the theatre.

I picked up an armload of learned tomes about life in the 17th century, got them home, and found I couldn’t understand a word. They’d all been written by academics who assumed a certain amount of prior knowledge, while I lacked even the simplest basics.

So I went back to the library, only this time I headed for the children’s section, where the words are simple and there are lots of pictures. From there, I gradually worked my way back up to the adult section.

I ended up doing six months of research in order to write one funny 5,000 word story.

The story was called “The Lemon Juice Plot”. Though I finished it in early 1992, the anthology didn’t come out until the spring of 1994. Meanwhile, an editor at one of the major British publishing houses had read the story in manuscript and asked me if I’d be willing to write a novel set in the same period with the same characters. I knew enough to write a short story, but not enough for a novel. That’s how I ended up spending the next three years reading everything, I could find on the 17th century.

I’ve since become the kind of bore who corners people at parties and starts telling them all sorts of things they never wanted to know, such as the price of admission to view the lunatics at Bedlam (one penny), or a 17th century cure for baldness (rub fox grease into the scalp).

My most recent Restoration-era story is called “The Padder’s Lesson”. It’s a funny story about a highwayman who gets his come-uppance, and will be appearing in an anthology of historical crime stories dedicated to the memory of Ellis Peters, scheduled for U.K. publication in October, 1998.

DM) When it comes to describing the royalty, I’m surprised how their interactions seem so “normal”. I’ve always grown up thinking that royalty was a “mystical” entity but you’ve seemed to debunk that.

MB) I think Charles II was probably as “mystical” as any of them on public occasions or when dealing with matters of state. In those days, the king was still believed to rule by Divine Right, and also to have healing powers. People with scrofula, a kind of glandular disease also known as “The King’s Evil”, would line up to have Charles touch them because they believed the king’s touch would cure them.

In Invitation To A Funeral, however, we only see him when he’s dallying with his mistresses. And there’s not much that’s mystical about that.

DM) What I didn’t understand is, if it was such common knowledge why did the queen allow it?

MB) The queen had no say in the matter whatsoever. In those days, the legal position of a woman was that she was her father’s property until she got married, at which time she became the property of her husband.

Besides that, Charles II’s queen, Catherine of Braganza, had several strikes against her. For one thing, she was barren, which made her position extremely precarious. Charles’s advisors were always trying to get him to divorce her and marry someone who could give him a legitimate heir. If he’d done so, it almost certainly would have made the political situation in the country a lot more stable. There would have been no concern about the throne going to Charles’s Catholic brother, and little if any support for the Duke of Monmouth’s claim to be the rightful heir.

Catherine was Portuguese, and many of Charles’s advisors felt a new marriage might produce a more profitable alliance than the one with Portugal. And worst of all, she was a Catholic at a time of intense anti-Catholic feeling in Britain.

She had no popular support in the country, and it was only a little over a century since Henry VIII had disposed of a couple of wives by beheading them, so she had to tread very carefully. During the Popish Plot, she would have been in actual danger of execution for treason if Charles had not stepped in to protect her; among the unfounded accusations flying around at the time was that she and her personal physician had plotted to poison the king. If Charles had not rejected those accusations outright, she might have gone the way of Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard.

Here’s a few useless facts about Catherine of Braganza (at this point you may begin to feel like you’ve been pushed up against a wall at a party, with me poking a finger at your chest):

She couldn’t speak much English, so Charles used to enjoy teaching her English swear words without telling her what they meant, then watching her innocently use them in company.

When she first arrived at Portsmouth on the 13th of May, 1662, she asked for a cup of tea only to be told there was none available; tea was a rare drink in England at that time. She is said to be at least partly responsible for introducing tea drinking to the English.

She had the 17th century equivalent of a clock with a luminous dial. The clock beside her bed had a lamp inside it, so she could tell the time in the dark.

She was quite good at archery and became patroness of the Honorable Fraternity of Bowmen. One activity she shared with her husband was fishing; she used to get up in the wee small hours so she could meet Charles for fishing at five.

And she’s hardly even mentioned in Invitation To A Funeral. This is something I really must fix if I ever get around to writing the sequel.

DM) Do you write stories exclusively about in Restoration England?

MB) I write stories set in other periods, and in other genres, as well.

My first novel, Virus, was a science fiction thriller set in Chicago in the year 2078. My novelisation based on the Cracker television series, Cracker: To Say I Love You, is set in contemporary Manchester. And my short stories are set all over the place, everywhere from ancient Rome to other planets.

DM) How do you start writing a book? With a character idea, a plot, an outline…. what’s the first step?

MB) I’m a short story writer by nature, and tend to find the sheer length of a novel daunting. One way I’ve found of overcoming this is to not think about the long stretch ahead; I only think about what I’ll do today.

I’m not a fast writer, and for a long time I used to kick myself because I wasn’t one of those people who can churn out five thousand words before breakfast. Then, a few years ago, I went to see Terry Pratchett giving a talk here in London, and he said something that has stayed with me ever since: that when he first started writing, he figured that if he only did 400 words a day, every day, that was two novels a year. I went home that night and worked it out with a calculator, and it came out to two novels of about 73,000 words each. Then I figured that, assuming a double-spaced typewritten page contains an average of 250 to 300 words, 400 words comes to about one and one-third pages a day.

I’m not even that ambitious; I tell myself that if I write just one page a day, every day, that’s 365 pages a year, or one slightly longer novel than Terry Pratchett was talking about. So when I sit down in front of the computer, I don’t think “I’ve got to write 365 pages,” I think, “All I have to do is write one page”. If I’m on a roll and do more, that’s great, but if I don’t, it’s no big deal; I know I’ve done my page.

DM) Where do you usually start?

MB) I usually start with the characters. I make notes on everything from their favourite colour to their psychological quirks.

DM) How about the plots?

MB) I don’t outline plots, but I find it’s helpful to have an idea of how the story’s going to end; that way, at least you know what you’re working towards. I will sometimes write what I would consider the climactic scene of the novel, where everything is finally made clear and all the plot threads are pulled together, then go back to the beginning and see how I can get myself to that point. The story always changes as I write it, so the climactic scene ends up having to be re-written, but I’ve found it’s a great way to focus on what you’re aiming for, and what point, if any, you’re trying to make.

DM) Thanks, this interview has certainly been a learning experience.

MB) Thanks.

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