[I recently read The Friendship of Mortals by Audrey Driscoll, the first installment in her Herbert West series. I absolutely loved it, and sent Ms. Driscoll a few questions about the book, her other works, and her thoughts on writing in general, which she kindly and thoughtfully answered. One note: there are a few minor spoilers for the first book below. Enjoy!]
BG: What was it about Lovecraft’s original Herbert West story that first inspired you to write this series?
AD: I was aware of the story for years before I was able to track down a copy. Its reputation as HPL’s worst story intrigued me. How bad could it be? After I read it, I found myself wondering why Herbert West is so interested in reanimating corpses, especially considering how badly his attempts turn out. HPL calls him a totally rational type, but some of his activities, especially in the later chapters, seem pretty irrational. In other words, I thought Herbert was interesting enough to need a backstory, so I wrote one, incorporating other elements from Lovecraft – the Necronomicon, Miskatonic University, Arkham, Kingsport, and a few others. Not Cthulhu, though.
BG: How did you manage to write the romance scenes and still keep in the Lovecraftian style? Were there any other sources that you looked to for inspiration on that, or to help with writing the early 20th-century setting in general?
AD: As you know, since you’ve read both HPL’s original story and my book, both are narrated by Herbert West’s friend and accomplice. Lovecraft doesn’t give him a name, but I called him Charles Milburn. I pictured him as a lonely, middle-aged librarian (and I’ll just add here that I worked as a librarian for 35 years), telling the story many years later. His somewhat obsessive, confessional style was perfect for the tale, as though the time has come to tell his long-kept secrets, and he can’t wait to pour them out. The romance element lent itself well to this, because Charles’s affair with Alma must be kept secret from their colleagues, and Charles’s romantic impulses toward Herbert are pretty much unacknowledged by him. Once I discovered/decided that Herbert was gay, I read quite a few works by and about gay writers, which helped me to shape the characters.
BG: There are lots of themes in The Friendship of Mortals, but the main one seems to be the narrator’s romanticism vs. West’s materialism. Did you consciously want to explore this conflict, or did it arise organically in telling the story? And do you think the reader should come away favoring one viewpoint or the other, or is it more of a “in the eye of the beholder” sort of thing?
AD: West’s materialism was emphasized by Lovecraft in his original story, so I must have organically decided to make my narrator, Charles Milburn, a Romantic. A certain amount of conflict developed naturally after that, which was a good thing. And since Herbert undergoes a transformation analogous to the process of alchemy, I suppose I expect the reader to follow along and experience that along with him.
BG: There are a few passages in the book that have to do with music. Can you talk a little about how music influences your writing? Do you listen to music while you write?
AD: Yes, definitely! I actually worked some pieces of music I listened to at the time, such as J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations and the Allegri Miserere, into the plot of The Friendship of Mortals. Another CD I listened to during that writing was The Mask and the Mirror by Loreena McKennitt. Her setting of “The Dark Night of the Soul” by St. John of the Cross had a profound influence on the novel, sending it in a direction I certainly never intended.
The most musically-influenced of my works is a literary novel entitled Winter Journeys, about Franz Schubert’s song cycle, Winterreise. It’s not historical; the action takes place in the years of its writing, the winter of 2007-2008. I haven’t published it myself as yet, because I still have an idea I might try to get it traditionally published. But I’ve been so taken up with publishing the Herbert West books and writing my current work in progress that I no longer have the mindset necessary for submitting to publishers.
BG: What other authors, besides Lovecraft, have influenced or inspired you?
AD: Stephen King, of course. Both his novels and On Writing, which inspired me to start actually writing, instead of thinking I couldn’t possibly. Peter Straub as well; his approach to horror is more subtle than King’s. The most elegant horror story I’ve ever read, though, is Algernon Blackwood’s “The Willows.” Nothing I’ve written even comes close. Otherwise, among the authors whose works I hold dear are Mary Renault, Elizabeth Goudge, Mervyn Peake and J.R.R. Tolkien. And Leo Tolstoy. And the garden writer Henry Mitchell, whose style I found most appealing.
BG: Besides your literary work, you also blog about gardening. Are there similarities between the two activities? Any gardening wisdom that helps you in writing?
AD: Well, there’s nothing fictional about gardening. It’s as real as can be. That helps to reset my perspective. It’s done outdoors, which means I spend time away from the desk and computer, and it’s physical. Digging up tree roots is extremely physical. So is pruning, especially huge old climbing roses and prickly hollies. I have the scars to prove it. Noticing, observing, and visualizing are necessary in gardening, and are helpful habits for writers to cultivate as well.
BG: Would you be willing to discuss any new literary project(s) that you have in the works?
AD: I have just finished the first draft of a novel which is a sort of sequel to the Herbert West Series. It features a descendant of Herbert’s (and you have to read the entire series to see how that comes about!) The title is She Who Comes Forth. It’s set in Luxor, Egypt and the Theban Necropolis in the autumn of 1962. It will come forth, I hope, later this year.
BG: What has surprised you most about writing/publishing? Was it easier or harder than you expected when you first started?
AD: When I started writing The Friendship of Mortals in November 2000, I was blown away by the experience. That book pretty much wrote itself. I was obsessed with it. The obsession lasted through 2005 and three more books, although each one took longer to finish than its predecessor. Of course, I was trying to get traditionally published during those years, which introduced an element of harsh reality. Maybe that slowed me down. In 2010, I discovered self-publishing via Smashwords and eventually Amazon, and began my blog. I was taken up with those activities for the next seven years, so didn’t start writing another novel until 2017. A year later, I’m still at the raw first draft stage. Of course, I do my own editing and my own formatting — even for print, which is more challenging than ebook formatting. Altogether, though, I like the degree of control I have over the look and feel of my finished books. And as an indie, I can take whatever approach I like to marketing, as long as I adjust my expectations accordingly.
BG: Any advice that you would like to pass on to other aspiring authors?
AD: Writing and publishing are two completely different, although related, operations. Writers should ask themselves why they write, and what they expect from that process. Same for publishing. What constitutes success in each area? Each author has their own answers to these questions.
How much time, effort and money are they prepared to spend in writing and bringing their works to the world’s attention? It is possible to publish well with relatively little monetary expenditure, but that means doing a lot of it oneself. I wouldn’t encourage anyone to go into debt as a first-time self-publisher. Indie authors are a huge market for products and services; there are many hands ready to take one’s money, and not all of them are helping hands. Like so many other endeavours, self-publishing might be summed up this way: good, fast, cheap; pick two.
Writing is a solitary activity, even when done in coffee shops, but it’s immensely helpful to be part of a writing community. The internet is a good place to meet and communicate with other writers, both trad- and self-pubbed. I recommend finding a niche there. WordPress has dozens, if not hundreds, of writers’ blogs. Not every piece of writing/publishing advice you see is relevant or useful, so it helps to exercise one’s critical thinking abilities, and to keep asking the questions I mentioned earlier.
Thank you very much for the thought-provoking questions, Berthold. And for giving me space on your blog.
BG: It was my pleasure! Thank you for your thoughtful answers, and for writing such wonderful books.
[The following is an email interview I conducted with Eileen Stephenson, author of Tales of Byzantium: A Selection of Short Stories. It’s a very enjoyable book, and a great introduction to an unjustly-neglected time period. Ms. Stephenson’s answers are very helpful for independent authors, especially those writing historical fiction. Enjoy!–BG]
Q: How did you first become interested in Medieval Byzantium?
A: It was all because of the 2-3 hours I spend commuting to the day job. I came to rely on audio books for my sanity. One Saturday at the library, searching the shelves I came upon John Julius Norwich’s A Short History of Byzantium. I didn’t know much about them, and expected little. Then in the introduction, the author says that the one thing you could never say about the Byzantines is that they were boring. “Oh, really?” I thought skeptically. He was right, though, as the three bookcases I now have filled with Byzantine history will attest.
Q: The third story, “Alexiad” is about Anna Comnena writing “The Alexiad”. I liked that it focused on a woman as the central character. Can you tell me a little about women in Byzantine society?
A: Medieval women anywhere usually had few rights and less education. However, 11th and 12th century Byzantium saw literacy, even for women, become common down into the middle classes. There were women doctors – paid about half as much as the men, and expected to work twice as many hours, but still far ahead of western Europe.
The Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantine) had three women ruling empresses. The first was Irene the Athenian, the 8th century widow of an emperor and mother of another emperor. However, her reputation is tainted by the fact that she blinded her son to take the throne. The next was Zoe in the 11th century. She was the oldest surviving child of an emperor and married three men who each took the title of emperor at their wedding. After Zoe and her last husband died, Zoe’s sister, Theodora, succeeded them and ruled alone for 19 months before dying.
During the Comnene era, from 1081 to 1185, women frequently influenced events, starting with the heroine of the novel I’m working on, Anna Dalassena, even if they never fully ruled in their own right. There were more than a few women of that period who left their mark in history.
Q: Both Anna Comnena and Constantine VII, who features prominently in the first story, seem to have been very notable because of their writing. Do you think that history is often, as you write in the notes to “Alexiad”, “told by the writer”? And if so, to what extent do you think that their perspective skews our understanding of history?
A: History is definitely told by the writer, although often the writer is paid by the winner. I think in Anna Comnena’s case she wrote partly because, with her intelligence and education, she needed something to do in the long years of her confinement, and partly to honor her father. Anna’s brother, the Emperor John II Comnenus, was a notably modest man and kept no historian on staff to record his accomplishments, so there is little history of his reign.
A better example of writers skewing perspectives is the 6th century historian, Procopios. A courtier in Justinian I’s reign, he wrote a typically bland official history and then he wrote his Secret History, a salacious retelling of every possible mistake and ugly rumor concerning Justinian and his wife, Theodora. I’ve never looked for a copy of his official history, but his Secret History is in paperback and still quite a read. That’s the one that people remember now.
Q: What is the most challenging thing about writing historical fiction? How do you balance historical accuracy vs. well-paced narrative, if the two conflict?
A: The most challenging thing about writing historical fiction is the writing. Grasping the elements of grammar is a start, but then there’s the need for a well-crafted story holding the reader’s attention. You can’t build a sturdy house just knowing how to hammer a nail.
Balancing historical accuracy vs. the well-paced narrative can be challenging but my reading of some stars of the genre – Sharon Kay Penman, Elizabeth Chadwick, Colleen McCullough – have provided examples of how to do it. Often it means having long periods of time pass between some chapters, while other chapters occur in close time proximity.
Q: What is the number one reaction you would like readers to have to your book? Do you want them to be more interested in studying history, or do you want them gripped by the story/characters?
A: Reading historical fiction as a kid made me want to learn more about the history. With the Byzantines, it was the history that came first, and when I found little fiction about them, I knew that was what I had to write. The reaction I hope my readers have is that the story and characters so grip them that they want to learn more about the history.
Q: What other authors in the historical fiction genre influenced you?
A: Sharon Kay Penman, Elizabeth Chadwick, and Colleen McCullough would be highest on that list. Others are Bernard Cornwell, Thomas B. Costain, Philippa Gregory. I’ve been fortunate to meet other historical novelists in the Historical Novel Society and many of them have been kind enough to share their wisdom with me. It’s been a great experience.
Q: If you were to write an “alternative history” story about Byzantium, what historical event would you like to change?
A: I think most historians would wish the outcome of the Battle of Manzikert to be different. But Manzikert was just the result of forces put in play thirty years earlier when Empress Zoe chose as her third husband a frivolous spendthrift who disastrously weakened the empire. So I would probably say my alternative story would be a better husband for Zoe than Constantine IX Monomachos.
[My thanks to Ms. Stephenson for her time and very thoughtful answers. You can get Tales of Byzantium here.]