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Suzannah Dunn
What made you start writing?
As for a lot of people, I’m sure, there wasn’t really a point at which I started, because I was already doing it, if you see what I mean: there was never a time when I wasn’t doing it. (Oh, except at university: there was a hiatus then, because I didn’t have the time/mental energy.) But I’m not very book-ish, I’m afraid: I came from a home in which there were virtually no books and no one read, and, unfortunately, I can’t claim that I went off and discovered and devoured the local library. And I remain quite a poor reader (by which I mean that I can go months without reading a book, although perhaps not altogether happily, and I put down far more books than I finish reading). If I have an impetus to tell stories, I think that comes from an interest in people’s lives: from gossip! My mum never stopped talking (she still hasn’t), so there were certainly a lot of words around, and stories of a kind. I suspect that’s what has made me such an ardent ‘realist’ (see below): that focus on real people’s lives. I did then take English A level at school, under a superb teacher, and was switched on to all that, with a passion. After leaving university (where I didn’t study English! – I think I assumed I could read books in my spare time…), I started writing (vaguely – short stories, if I can dignify them with that term, and, actually, I don’t think I can) in the hope of publication, because I wasn’t doing much else and because I didn’t want to have to do a proper job. (I come from a long line of self-employed people and the aversion to wage-slavery, as it were, runs very deep. I don’t say that to celebrate it – I suspect my life might’ve been easier and more enjoyable if I could’ve settled a job…) Of course, now I look back and I’m aghast at my naivety! – perhaps a little touched by it, too, though. It’s only in the past five years - since my so-called historical novels got going - that I’ve been able to give up other work (care work, teaching) and just write, which brings me neatly to your next question…
You initially made a name as a writer of general literary fiction. What made you change to writing historical fiction?
I didn’t! Not consciously (and anyway I’m not sure that I do write ‘historical fiction’, but see below!). What happened was that I’d finished one book – my seventh? - and felt I should start another but had no idea what to do. I’d run dry (and about time, too: I’d been writing myself into a cul de sac for years and I was even boring myself by then). I remember asking myself (desperately!) what story I was interested in – and that was a departure for me ie a story! - and the answer came back loud and clear: the story of Anne Boleyn. (Please let me say in my defence that this was back in the days before ‘The other Boleyn girl’ and the latest TV Tudors and so on; it was a relatively quiet phase, Tudor-wise, culturally, and thus not the screaming cliché it is at the moment…) But I immediately dismissed the idea: I thought, ‘But I don’t do historical novels.’ But then, 24 hours later (and I do remember the exact moment – the revelation, if you like!), I suddenly thought, ‘So, don’t do it as a historical novel,’ although I didn’t really know what I meant by that. Well, I did and I didn’t. I still can’t really articulate it properly, but if you’ve read any of my so-called historical novels, you’ll know what I mean. They’re written with a modern sensibility, is something I’ve heard said - and that’ll do for me, for now.
Do you think that Hilary Mantel’s Booker Prize for WOLF HALL is symptomatic of a shifting attitude towards historical fiction as a genre?
The short answer is that I’d love to be able to say yes, but, sadly, my suspicion is that the answer is no. Over the years, we’ve had plenty of what you might call literary novels – very successful ones, I mean, in terms of prizes/reviews/sales - with what you might call historical subjects, yet (in my view) there’s been little or no ‘shifting attitude’. (And, anyway, having said that, there’s a sense in which Wolf Hall is a real one-off, isn’t it.)

But there’s a much bigger question here, inside your question, isn’t there – indeed, the big question – and although I dread it, I shouldn’t completely shirk it, I should at least acknowledge it. It’s the question of what is ‘historical fiction’. (IS Wolf Hall ‘historical fiction’? or is it ‘literary fiction’ with a historical subject?) Actually, I suppose my dread of that big question comes from my being sort of in it, so it feels to me that perhaps it isn’t my place to comment. I feel that it’s hard – impossible? – for me to comment without (inadvertently) adopting a position: being precious, perhaps, or confrontational, or dismissive of others, or defensive on my own behalf. (None of which I want to be!) Also, I feel as if in order to come up with a coherent view on it, rather than just a reaction, I’d need to devote considerable time and mental energy to thinking about it, and I don’t have that time and energy: I’ve a job to do (ie write my books) and I get on with that and let others comment. But, well, um, that’s disingenuous, because of course I have a view (or views)…

A few quick points on that subject, though… First, although it’s a facile point to make, nevertheless I feel obliged to make it, briefly: if a novel features something that is said (by the author) to have happened last week, or last year, or last century… well, they’re all ‘historical’, aren’t they. Secondly, one of my favourite novels is Sylvia Townsend Warner’s ‘The Corner That Held Them’, and although that’s set in a nunnery in the fourteenth century, I’ve never come across it referred to as a ‘historical novel’; it’s just a novel which is set in a fourteenth century nunnery. Likewise, reflecting upon my holiday reading, this summer: I loved ‘Before the Earthquake’ (Maria Allen), which, surely, could be said to be a wonderful example of historical fiction – set at the turn of last century in Tuscany – but I’ve never come across it referred to as such; and I very much enjoyed ‘The Help’, and surely that’s ‘historical’? Thirdly, I used to be considered as a writer of so-called literary fiction, but I can tell you that I don’t write any differently now that I’m writing so-called historical fiction (I should be writing better, if experience counts for anything…!)
How do you do the research for your novels?
By reading the work of historians. I almost never go to primary sources because I’m not a historian, I lack the necessary training, although recently (I’m decades behind most people when it comes to computers) I’ve begun to look at some of the material – primary sources - now available a mere click away, and am perhaps getting a little more confident. Occasionally I treat myself to a trip somewhere relevant (most recently, Savernake Forest in Wiltshire, where Wolf Hall was): a perk of the job….
Your telling of the story of Katherine Howard is original and compelling. How much freedom do you allow yourself to interpret historical ‘facts’?
Ah, now, this is the other biggie, isn’t it! – how much we, as ‘historical novelists’, can/should/do make up! Actually, I’m a stickler for the truth as I understand it. I can’t shake the sense that my job is to tell the truth (perhaps peculiarly, I feel that’s the job of fiction: to tell the truth! To tell more of the truth!). (See below, too, re: characters…) And I’m one of those awful people who, when watching something Tudor-y on telly or reading a ‘historical’ novel, is forever shouting, outraged, ‘That’s NOT TRUE/THAT didn’t happen!’

When I started the first of my ‘historicals’, though, (on Anne Boleyn), my agent gave me some very good advice: ‘Don’t just re-tell history’, was what he said. He wanted me to bring something new to a story that everyone knows (or thinks they know). Which ended up being the perspective of the confectioner at court (she did exist, but we know nothing more about her). And in the subsequent novels, I’ve tended to tell the story (the ‘true’ story!) via someone else, to use someone else’s perspective, their eyes. There’s another, related point to make, here: I do believe that fiction is, fundamentally, about ‘what if’… So, often I’ll introduce a ‘what if’ (what if Katherine Parr’s best friend had an affair with her husband?). But I do always preface with an ‘author’s note’ as to what I’ve invented in a novel: I like to be very clear about that. You can take it from me that the rest is ‘true’ (ie sticks very closely to historical record).

Mostly, though, the bits in my novels that are invented are to cover the gaps in the historical record: it’s not that I’m warping the truth, it’s that the truth isn’t known. And I have no problem with that; that feels entirely comfortable. I’ll take the ‘truth’ – the historical record – and build on that, go on from that or go in deeper than that. Which is what I’ve done with Katherine Howard. Her sexual history is horribly well-documented – from her confession, and the evidence extracted from her friends (including Cat Tilney) – and I didn’t change any of that, in my novel: that’s all there, but just ‘dramatised’, you might say ie brought to life (I hope!).
It must be difficult to shake off the weight of received historical knowledge when writing about such well-documented characters. Yet you always create vivid portraits of ‘real’ people. How do you manage that?
Well, it’s very kind of you to say so! But isn’t that my job? As I’ve said, I’m a great putter-down of novels, I’m afraid, and my putting down of a novel is just about always because I feel that a character wouldn’t do what the author is having him or her do, or wouldn’t feel how the author is having him/her feel… in other words, it doesn’t feel real. All the time that I’m writing – trust me, all the time – I’m asking myself, Is this how it really would’ve been? I regard it as my job to be asking that. (Of course, I don’t always get it right! – but I try!)
What is it that draws you to the Tudors?
They – as the ‘early moderns’ – are positioned very interestingly, historically. Yes, they were a long time ago and are therefore interestingly different from us, but – as ‘moderns’ - they’re also very recognisable to us, I think (ie in a way that the medieval mindset – I’d argue - isn’t). I could write an essay on this, and none of us want that, so I’ll just say very briefly that social mobility was being accepted and indeed embraced during this period (look at Thomas Cromwell!), and the notion of meritocracy is fundamental to us, today, isn’t it – to how we understand society, to what we view as the-meaning-of-life. Likewise, and relatedly: individuality, the primacy of an individual’s ‘conscience’ (and – relatedly, but crucially – the education of the individual), and – horribly briefly, now! – that became (despite Henry V111’s intentions!) central to the Reformation… Also, and just as importantly, there’s so much of the Tudors left around for us: buildings, and documentation (they are SO well-documented - by themselves, I mean - which is a delight, which gives us a wealth of material). Oh, and don’t even get me started on Holbein ie how we almost have photos of the people I’m writing about!
You have now rewritten the lives of three of Henry VIII’s wives. Are you planning to do them all? If so, which one is next?
No, I’m not planning to do them all! But I’m kind of ‘doing’ Jane Seymour, at present… but not really, because it’s actually the story of her sister-in-law (her eldest brother Edward’s wife), whom Edward ‘repudiated’ - set aside, sent to a convent – a few years after the marriage (disinheriting their two infant sons, too) because, it was rumoured, she’d had an affair with his father. (Ooer!)

After that, it’ll be some or all of the Grey sisters, I think.
Suzannah Dunn

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