Interview: Lynn Shepherd

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Lynn Shepherd, on the day her second novel, Tom-All-Alone’s, is released talks Dickens and working with the classics. Lynn studied English at Oxford in the 1980s and, after working in business and PR in London, she returned to work on a doctorate in 2003. At the turn of the century Lynn committed herself to pursuing her literary ambitions and became a freelance writer, whilst working on her novels in her free time.

Lynn is a self-described writer of “literary murder”. Her first novel, Murder at Mansfield Park, was a well-received twist on Jane Austen's classic, and her new novel Tom-All-Alone’s gives Dickens's Bleak House the same treatment.

Working with an established text, and one from an author as well-loved as Charles Dickens, must be a challenge. What prompted you to write a story that runs parallel to Bleak House, and did you feel an added burden working with one of Dickens’s classics?

Not a burden, no, but definitely a responsibility. History is full of books that have taken other books as their inspiration – not just classics like Joyce’s Ulysses and Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, but all those hundreds of ‘fan fic’ stories you can find all over the web these days. Speaking for myself, I think you have to bring something new and creative to a relationship like that – not merely re-hashing something or ‘exploiting’ the original text. Your readers will always be the ultimate judge as to whether you’ve actually achieved that, of course, but I do like to think that Tom-All-Alone’s adds a new angle to Bleak House by examining some of the same themes with 21st century hindsight.

How did you go about developing your own story?

Bleak House starts - famously – in November, and I wanted to anchor my own book by echoing that wonderful opening in my own. Thereafter I needed to keep the time-frame tight, since the murder mystery genre demands that events are resolved within a relatively short space of time. Bleak House, by contrast, runs over several years in its entirety, so I chose one slice of that time, and constructed my story to run in parallel with Dickens’s during that period.

The Victorian era is often revisited by contemporary novelists, what did you find challenging about writing the period, and did you actively try to avoid painting a pastiche of the time?

You’re right that this is well-worn territory, and it’s hard to bring anything genuinely new to bear under those circumstances. And I faced an additional challenge, because I knew if I tried to pastiche Dickens it could very quickly turn into unintentional parody. The answer I came up with was to have a self-consciously 21st-century narrator, who is detached from events, and can talk directly to the reader about aspects of Victorian society that we know now, but could not be discussed at the time.

Given the huge leaps in culture and society since Dickens’s time, it must have been difficult to write from the characters’ point of view. How did you go about developing their internal voices and ensuring authentic motivations and behaviours?

I suppose any writer has to try to inhabit their characters’ minds, and develop a clear picture of who they are, and why they behave as they do. Though there is an extra layer of complexity when you’re doing that with historical figures. I did work hard to avoid the trap of anachronism, and I was lucky I could give the task of ‘supplying background information’ to my narrator, so I didn’t have to stage conversations with my characters talking about the state of the poor in London, or subjects like that.

You must have spent a lot of time with Dickens’s works in the process of writing Tom-All-Alone’s. What is it that appeals to you about his style?

I studied Dickens at university, though that was a long time ago now! I’ve always thought Bleak House is his best and most representative work, and I did end up knowing that book incredibly well when I was writing Tom-All-Alone’s - I think I must have read it four or five times during that period. I didn’t re-read all of them, though – and I confess I was put off Hard Times for life after doing it for A level! I think Dickens at his best is utterly brilliant – funny, insightful, trenchant, even poetic, as in the opening to Bleak House, or some passages in Great Expectations or Our Mutual Friend.

With Charles Dickens’s bicentenary this year, there is an added spotlight on his works. You must be excited about all the additional coverage both his, and by extension your, work will be getting?

A lot of people have assumed I must have planned to have Tom-All-Alone’s to come out this year, but I confess I was half-way through writing it before I realised it was the bicentenary in 2012! But of course it’s wonderful to be able to make my own contribution to the revival of interest in his work, and it’s fantastic that the new TV adaptations are sending so many people back to the books. In fact one of the nicest compliments I’ve had from early readers of Tom-All-Alone’s is that some of them have been inspired to read Bleak House for the first time.

With all the events planned to celebrate Dickens’s bicentenary you must be in high demand. What are the highlights of your calendar this year?

One of them will definitely be the talk I’m giving at the Dickens Museum in London on February 9th. It’s quite something to be able to discuss my own book in the very house Dickens himself lived in. I’m also looking forward to the Great Dickens Debate for the English Speaking Union on February 23rd. I’m also doing a lot of regional library events as part of Dickens2012 celebrations!

The process of writing a book like Tom-All-Alone’s must be very involving. How long did it take you to write once you were set on the idea?

I’m one of those writers who take a long time to develop a new idea, but can then (usually!) complete the actual writing process reasonably quickly. The idea for Tom-All-Alone’s was in my mind for more than a year before I wrestled it into a workable plot, but the writing of it only took about six months.

Did your writing process differ in this case, to when you’re writing from an unaffiliated idea? If so, how?

My first book was a re-working of Mansfield Park, and there the challenge was to emulate Jane Austen’s style, and adapt a modern genre like the murder mystery to Regency manners and the very rudimentary criminal justice system in place at the time. As I said, I never even tried to ‘write like Dickens’ with this new book, so the emphasis was not so much on the fine detail of the style, as on the wider detail of Victorian London. I have written two (unpublished) novels with a contemporary setting, but that was a while ago, and I think I’ve changed a lot as a writer since then, so I’m not sure how different my writing process would be if I were to attempt a novel like that now.

What do you hope readers get from Tom-All-Alone’s? Do you think it’s necessary to have read Bleak House to fully appreciate your story?

I set myself the same task with this book as I did with the last one. I wanted Tom-All-Alone’s to work just as well for a reader who has never read a single word of Dickens, as for a Dickens aficionado. I hope it’s fun to read as a standalone Victorian murder story, but that it also offers a ‘creative commentary’ on Bleak House for those who know that book intimately. If you do know happen to the original there are a lot of echoes and allusions for you to unearth, and you’ll be able to identify some of the (unnamed) people you’ll encounter in the streets and omnibuses and dining-houses of Tom-All-Alone’s. But if you don’t, it really doesn’t matter - you’ll be every bit as capable of solving the dark mystery at the heart of the book. 

Novels which draw directly on, or are adaptations of, classics, are becoming increasingly popular. What advice would you give to people wanting to write a novel that draws on one of the classics?

I think you have to do it properly! As I said earlier, I worked really hard to mimic Jane Austen’s style in my first book, and I think many die-hard Austen fans liked Murder at Mansfield Park for that reason – they saw I had tried to make it both respectful and authentic. I think the problems start if people feel you’re just exploiting a famous name, or merely giving much-loved characters another outing without adding anything new or different of your own.

Are you planning your next project yet, or is the marketing for Tom-All-Alone’s taking up all of your free time?

I love all the promotional work that goes with launching a new book, and I particularly enjoy meeting readers, but as you say, it does take up a lot of time! Luckily I’ve just finished the first draft of my third book, so I can concentrate on Tom-All-Alone’s for the next few weeks. The third book is another ‘literary mystery’, and will bring back two of the central characters of Tom-All-Alone’s – Charles Maddox, uncle and nephew. 

Outside of Dickens, what sort of books do you enjoy?

I love classic English literature – Austen, Dickens, Eliot, Hardy – and I have a particular fondness for Samuel Richardson, the ‘father of the novel’. Sadly hardly anyone reads him any more, largely because his books are so long, but Clarissa is a true masterpiece of European culture and I really recommend it - especially for anyone who’d like to know more about the tradition that leads to Jane Austen. I also enjoy clever and elegant crime novels – I always read a whole stack of them on holiday.

Favourite word, and why?

That’s a tough one! How about ‘serendipity’? Because it sounds beautiful, and I love the very idea.

Lynn Shepherd's Tom-All-Alone's (The Solitary House in the US) is available in print and e-book editions at Amazon now. You can find Lynn online at: www.lynn-shepherd.com/

Useful Links
Tom-All-Alone's on Amazon (UK)

3 comments:

Petra said...

Another great interview! I saw Murder at Mansfield Park a few weeks ago somewhere, and was quite intrigued, but now I'll definitely put it on my TBR list! :)

And serendipity is a nice word, I like the idea of it, too.

Matthew (The Bibliofreak) said...

I can't say that I've read it, but it's definitely had good press from what I gather. Besides, anything with a Jane Austen twist suits you, right?

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