In conversation

imageTo mark the launch of The Last Prince, I knew I should really try to write something about myself and how I came to write the book in the first place. But I’m awful at that sort of thing, so I got hold of my friend and fellow Bookfox Moira Briggs and begged her to ask me some sensible questions. This she duly did, and you can read my (less sensible) answers below.

You describe The Last Prince as a ‘Ruritanian’ romance – which is a word I haven’t heard in a long while. It instantly conjures up images of Stewart Granger. Or even better, TWO Stewart Grangers. Mmmmm …. Anyway, yes, Ruritania, or in this case Santa Teresa, which – whether you intended it or not – kept reminding me of St Michael’s Mount, only with a better climate. Is it based on anywhere you’ve ever actually been, or is it an entirely fictitious island?

My mental geography of Santa Teresa is roughly based on Elba, where I had a very happy, sunny, Napoleon-geeky week or so several years ago now. I spent a lot of time wandering around Portoferraio while my husband was stuck in long conference sessions, and it made a great impression on me. When I started thinking about this book, way back at the beginning, I enjoyed playing with the idea of a Napoleonic island: a strange wee anomaly of a microstate that somehow escaped the Congress of Vienna unscathed to follow its own particular path. Somewhere that, like Elba, would retain Napoleon’s imprint even though things have changed considerably since his day.

Since writing The Last Prince, I’ve started to explore some of Santa Teresa’s peculiar history in a set of stories featuring Father Carlo Neri, a Jesuit priest who’s perpetually in the wrong place at the wrong time.

A Napoleonic island onto which you deposit a fiercely intelligent wee Fife lass with a full set of proletarian credentials and a finely honed socialist conscience … Just the tiniest touch of author insert there? [Moira knows me well.]

Copyright © 2013 by John McCluskey

Copyright © 2013 by John McCluskey

Not intentionally! But I am a chippy Fifer, and I love horses, though I stick to riding stocky, sensible native ponies (with the exception of Mirko the wonder stallion, who’s in my author photo: he belongs to my friend Kirstin and he’s as gentle as any fuzzy pony). So it was great fun to write from Jennie’s point of view and her reactions came very naturally to me, although she’s got more nerve than I have in some respects.

Another interesting departure from the romantic novel ‘norm’ – if there is such a thing, she said, hastily covering her tail – is the number of alpha males you have littering the story. Not one, not two but THREE. True, one of them eventually turns out to be a megalomaniac slimeball of (anti) heroic proportions, but even so … was that by design, or accidental – a case of the characters taking on lives of their own?

It was completely accidental. When I started out, one of the alpha males (played by Louis Jourdan, in my imaginary scheme) was intended to be the romantic lead and another (Claude Rains, ditto) the dashing villain. Then, one day, I woke up and found they’d swapped places. Just as well, because it was much more interesting that way round.

Horses, obviously, feature largely in TLP (not to mention immaculately tailored breeches and riding boots – but that’s a whole other conversation) and it’s a horse, or rather the relationship between a man and a horse that finally causes the proverbial scales to fall from Jennie’s eyes. It’s also a horse that introduces us to Alpha Male Three … and now I come to think of it, the only form of shopping that features in a major way in the book is Jennie’s friend shopping for horses. The horse as leitmotiv. Discuss.

Well, (a), horses are awesome. There should be more pony books for grownups.

And (b), there were a couple of experiences that really influenced the shape of this book. One was a visit to watch morning rehearsal at the Spanish Riding School in Vienna, where I saw two female riders working with young Lipizzaner stallions. That got me thinking about what it would be like to come into that kind of environment as a woman, and that was the seed of the novel, although the setup is very, very different to the Spanish Riding School.

The other came partway into my first draft, when I was fortunate enough to have a tour of Hyde Park Barracks. I was coming to London and had emailed the Household Cavalry to ask, without any real hope, if I might talk to someone there; and lo, they were very generous. There was a lot that was interesting about the barracks and how they function, but one thing that really intrigued me was the role of the horses themselves. They’re not pets, but they’re not simply a commodity, either. It’s a particular relationship and it’s at the heart of everything.

Neither institution is a model for the Imperial Riding School of Santa Teresa, where much of the book is set – except, sometimes, in the sense of being the exact opposite. But the idea of a society where horses are at the epicentre – and of course someone like Jennie would very much judge a man on how he treats his horses – was interesting and I enjoyed pursuing it.

That was obvious … I couldn’t help but notice an absence of cupcakes though – or indeed bakery of any sort. Cupcakes seem to be a bit de rigueur for romantic novels at the moment. Didn’t you get the memo?

What can I say? I’m awful at baking. Last time I tried, I made shortbread you could stun a man with, and not in a good way.

I strongly suspect the same is true of your heroine Jennie. Did her character change at all from your original concept of her?

I suppose it did but, because I was largely writing from her point of view, I didn’t see her evolution so clearly. What did change was my estimation of what she would be able to do about her situation. Being the only woman and civilian in a macho military environment, far from home and lacking unqualified, unconditional support, is fairly limiting, not to mention disheartening at times – and of course her personality brings its own limitations. I’m horribly familiar with the way that women, and especially working class women, are socialised to hesitate rather than forge on when their own interests are at stake. That’s so endemic to the way I work that, even in this ridiculous Ruritanian fantasy scenario, I couldn’t quite eradicate it from Jennie’s character. But she charges about on big scary stallions and first-names royals and gets involved in palace coups, and all that, I think, shows a certain degree of guts.

And it doesn’t stop her bashing off an email in a fit of righteous, “I’ll show them” fury – and setting the whole story in motion…

So – whither Jennie, Henri, Rafael and Bertie? (Sorry – didn’t mean to make that sound like a menage a quatre …). TLP ends on a slightly “What next?” note, but a satisfying one, and one that suggests a continuing story beyond ‘The End’ ….

Well, I’m writing a sequel at the moment, and the best fun of it is that it has parallel narratives: one set in the present day, and one beginning ten years earlier. So you’ll get to find out not only what’s next for Jennie, Bertie and co., but why exactly the smooth and ambitious Don Rafael de la Fuente and the upright – dare I say, uptight – Captain Henri Leclerc are such deadly rivals. It’s all very visceral stuff.

Last question – bog standard one, but interesting nonetheless … Which authors and/or books have most influenced your fiction writing?

In this particular case? Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn. And it’s been a long time since I read any Ruby Ferguson, but I think she left a lasting impression.

Many thanks, Moira, for asking these brilliant questions. Do check out Moira’s book reviews over at Vulpes Libris.


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