Elizabeth Buchan

The award-winning novelist discusses her writing, inspiration and the past.
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You’ve written about the major events of the 20th century, such as WW2 and the Cold War – the attraction of the period of history, or do go for character and plot first?

They are closely allied! However, it wasn’t until I was a parent myself that I began to reflect on the post-war Second World War and the decades of the Cold War –   to which I never gave much thought when growing up. I certainly did not understand their profound influence on our politics and our psychology. Nor did I understand quite how remarkable my aunt was who married a German shortly after the war ended.

Some of your novels are set modern day and further in the past – what’s the attraction in this approach?

As far as my heroic publishers are concerned possibly not a great deal!  (I am sure they would much prefer it if I stuck to one arena which makes it easier for marketing.)  In early days of writing I got obsessed by the French Revolution, then turned my attention to the SOE. However, my children were growing up and I diverted to explore the domestic arena. To paraphrase Virginia Woolf: the stuff of novels is to be found in the kitchen. Later on, I found myself drawn to those upheavals and tensions of the twentieth century. My latest novel, for example, is set in 1959/60. The point being: I have been lucky enough with my publishers to be able to write about what is currently preoccupying me.

Can you tell us a little about how you research? Has the process changed over the years?

Someone once wrote that the writer must be humble in the face of their research for it is bigger than the writer. Brilliant advice and I have always kept it in mind. Yet, as I discovered, I needed to be disciplined. In the earlier days I was so excited by it that I stuffed as much material as I could into my stories. Big mistake… and the result was somewhat lumpen. Now, I still set out to amass as much knowledge as I can about the subject but I have learnt to hone in on one or two facts or instances and to rely on them to lead me into context and psychodrama of the novel.

The common phrase is that history is written by the victors. Do you think this is true?

Yes and no. In a literate age, there will always be those who produce their version of events whatever the prevailing orthodoxy which, in the end, will emerge even under totalitarian conditions. In a less literate age – and Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time is a brilliant expose – is was less easy to think independently and the victors certainly controlled the narratives.

If you could meet any figure from history, who would it be and why? Also, if you could witness any event throughout history, what would it be?

What a woman Mary Slessor was. Brave, principled, pioneering, tough. I don’t possess her faith, and it is tricky to laud nineteenth century missionaries, but I admire greatly her strength of mind and determination.

If I could lurk around the painting workshops of Renaissance Italy, I’d be there.

Are there any writers who helped shaped your career? Similarly, can you recommend three books which budding writers should read?

In the early days, I used to write blurbs for Penguin Books – a fabulous job for the rookie writer. I wrote one for a Dirk Bogarde novel and sent it to him. He rang up: ‘darling, you say here I’m a writer at the top of my form. Isn’t that a teeny bit out of central casting?   And, where else do I have to go after that…?’ There and then, he taught me to weigh every word and that it must earn its place in the text.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte for its heft and passion, undiluted by considerations for publishers or readers. It us excellent therapy when stuck with one’s own writing. Through sheer strength of feeling, Charlotte Bronte gets away with combining Gothic thrills with what Samuel Johnson called the ‘wild landscape of the heart’ to devastating effect.

Shelley by Richard Holmes, a magnificent and superbly written biography of Percy Bysshe, the ultimate in selfishness and brilliance who created havoc wherever he went. It repays re-reading for its pellucid prose and the empathetic skill with which Richard Holmes evokes a radical thinker and poet but also a narcissistic wild boy.

Oliver Blanc’s Last Letters: Prisons and Prisoners of the French Revolution. A riveting selection of letters written by those about to be guillotined and which were hidden away in the Fouquier-Tinville’s files for a couple of centuries. To read them is to be reminded that nothing surpasses a primary source. Here is the turmoil of men and women facing death. What they write reflects sorrow, courage, doubt and defiance ‘the world is execrable. Farewell’.  Often, there is a preoccupation with paying one’s debts but, above all, they exemplify that, whatever the historical context, feelings for family, friends and lovers remain constant.

If you could add any period or subject to the history curriculum, what would it be?

Probably a study of China to show how they were ahead centuries before Europe

If you could give a piece of advice to your younger self, either as a student or when you first started out as a writer, what would it be?

Do it. Just do it. Don’t displace by saying the accounts/ironing/ cooking need doing first. They don’t.

Do you have a routine as a writer?

I like to power walk first thing in the morning. I am usually at my desk by 10.30 and try to stay there.

Can you tell us a little bit about the project you are currently working on?

Having visited Arisaig in the Scottish Highlands for research when writing about the SOE, I became intrigued by the stories of the Commandos who also trained in the area. The local inhabitants were enjoined to secrecy and one of them gave the memorable response along the lines of: we’ve kept our mouths shut since the Bonnie Prince landed. There is material here…

Elizabeth Buchan is an award-winning and bestselling writer, and the author of Bonjour, Sophie.