Posted on 07/30/2018 at 09:00 AM by Sadye Scott-Hainchek
Victoria Blake is one of those people whose eventual writing success seems so predestined in retrospect.
The crime-fiction-turned-historical-fiction author is the granddaughter of a history teacher as well as the daughter of a history scholar and a writer renowned for his biography of a nineteenth-century British politician.
Despite that influence — or perhaps partly also because of it — she spent time working in the legal field first.
Fortunately, as Blake said in one interview, her time as a law clerk was so miserable that she spent her lunch break in a bookstore, “pining with every cell in my body to have a job that involved books.”
She put herself back on the right track by finding a job in publishing, and the pieces began falling into place slowly but surely.
We spoke to Blake recently about her journey from true-crime books written for England’s National Archives to a crime series to historical novels, one of which (Far Away) was short-listed for a Historical Novel Society Indie Award.
SADYE: So what made you decide to venture into writing fiction?
VICTORIA: I just had this feeling that if I didn’t try and find out if I could write fiction I’d regret it for the rest of my life. So fear of regret was a very powerful factor.
There was also the fact that it began to dawn on me that the way I wanted to express myself in the world was through words and storytelling.
When I started to write, it made sense of certain aspects of my personality that up until that point had been rather burdensome!
So some big piece of the jigsaw of my life fell into place when I began writing.
That’s not to say it’s been all plain sailing from that point — it certainly hasn’t — but certain parts of my life settled down when I focused on writing.
SADYE: Far Away draws on your father’s experience as a POW during World War II. It’s tough for most people to read general descriptions of such things, let alone when it’s someone so close to you who endured it. How did you work through that?
VICTORIA: When I wrote Far Away, part of my reasoning behind it was to publish the part of my father’s memoir that he had written.
(Robert Blake) was a famous historian who wrote a world-renowned biography of Benjamin Disraeli, a British nineteenth-century prime minister.
The only part of his memoirs he completed before he died was his war experiences. There wasn’t really enough of it to publish as a separate entity.
But since I’m a fiction writer, I wanted to write a novel, so I used his memoir as the basis for the experiences of my main protagonist.
I had known the basic story since I was a very small child: how he hid in the roof of his hut, then was looked after by Italians in Sulmona and then escaped across the Abruzzi mountains to join up with the allies who were fighting their way north through Italy. When I was young, I particularly liked the bit where he was pursued by wolves in the mountains!
Every child likes to think of their dad as a hero, and when I watched the famous film The Great Escape, I always thought of him and tried to fit the shy, rather diffident, academic man I knew into the picture!
He was certainly no Steve McQueen, more like the blind forger played by Donald Pleasance, but unlike that character, my father had made it to freedom.
The most moving things I found were the letters he had sent to his parents from the Italian POW camps he was in. I hadn’t realized how short of food they were.
This wasn’t due to viciousness on the part of the Italians; it was mainly because they were very short of food for themselves.
First his letters are filled with requests for food, then clothing and finally books — a clear hierarchy of needs. The joy in his letters when he reports receiving parcels from home is overwhelming.
Despite or maybe because of his experiences my father remained very fond of the Italians and it was the first country I ever went to as a child.
SADYE: Your historical fiction hits on a variety of eras. Does any one time especially interest you?
VICTORIA: Usually it’s the one I’m currently working on! At the moment I’m writing a book set in Oxford during the English Civil War, so that’s 1642.
Oxford during the English Civil War was the royalist capital because Charles I moved his court there. It’s also my hometown, and it’s fascinating researching a town that was so unlike its usual self, truly a world turned upside down.
Instead of being a quiet university town, it was filled with soldiers; many of the heads of colleges — who were for Parliament, not king — fled and the students ended up joining the army and helping building the fortifications of the city. ...
But before that, it was the Spanish Civil War, so the 1930s. At university I was taught by someone who specialized in the Spanish Civil War, and despite writing a rather bad essay on the causes of it, I remain fascinated by it.
That book (currently unpublished) has as its main protagonist a British female war correspondent fashioned on Martha Gellhorn and Lee Miller.
And before that it was my book The Return of the Courtesan, set partly in Renaissance Venice and partly in twenty-first-century London and New York.
I did love the research for that one, especially about the great painter Titian.
SADYE: What is the toughest part of writing historical fiction?
VICTORIA: With historical fiction, you have to do a great deal of research.
It is one of the pleasures and the pains, and you can’t really deviate too much from what actually happened although obviously you can create fictional characters that you insert into the factual narrative.
There is also the question of agency when it comes to writing female characters in a historical context.
As a reader, I want to read strong female characters who have some agency over their lives, but the truth is that in some historical eras women had very little.
So then what do you do? The temptation is to make them too modern in their thinking and actions. I’ve been struggling with this a bit in my English Civil War book.
But then I read a review recently of a book called Invisible Agents by Nadine Akkerman, which is all about women and espionage during the seventeenth century, and I thought, well, I have to read that!
So now I think a spy is very likely to appear in my book.
SADYE: Did you feel any sort of pressure or expectation to ‘live up’ to your father’s writing?
VICTORIA: Excuse me while I go off and have about ten years of therapy before replying!
I think one of the reasons I came to writing fairly late was definitely because I was wary of going anywhere near writing and that was because my father was a very distinguished writer.
I clearly remember the shock of reading the reviews on the back of his book on Disraeli when I was quite young.
It was a revelation that the man who burnt the toast every morning at breakfast was also this very distinguished man as well.
It was difficult to compute. I was very proud of him, but it was also intimidating. But then I write fiction, and he was an academic.
The other side of having a writer for a father is that I had the experience of writing being a valued way to make a living.
Dad was at home, and often he was writing, so I had a model of someone doing that, just getting on with it in a very un-showy way.
SADYE: How did your books end up in Norwegian and Dutch?
VICTORIA: The whole thing about translation rights is a mystery to me.
I have an agent, and she tried to sell the rights, and the only countries which wanted the rights to my first two crime novels were Norway, Holland, and America.
I was really disappointed that the only country interested in publishing The Return of the Courtesan was Slovakia (thank you, Slovakia!). ...
However, as a consequence, I think the Dutch, Norwegians, Slovakians, and Americans have truly exceptional taste.
Seriously, I’d love my books to be available in more languages, and if anyone out there is interested, please get in contact.
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Categories: Author Interview