Lucy Ashe

Lucy Ashe

The author discusses her novels, inspiration and favourite moments of history.
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Lucy Ashe, what prompted you to choose the period that you wrote your first book in?

I knew I wanted my novel to be set at a time of new beginnings for British Ballet, and the early 1930s was an important transitional time. Ninette de Valois founded the Vic-Wells Ballet at Sadler’s Wells theatre in 1931, the company that later became The Royal Ballet. In my research, I was delighted to see that they put on a production of Coppélia in 1933, a ballet that I love and that inspired the plot of my novel. I danced scenes from Coppélia many times during the years I was training at The Royal Ballet School. It is a ballet of which I have very fond memories, and so it was an easy decision to set the novel during the rehearsals and performances of a historical performance of the ballet.

What is your approach to researching your novels? Has the process changed over the years?

There are two stages to my research. The first is the exploratory reading, surrounding myself in biographies, autobiographies, performance details, books on dance history, archival material, and, when it works out, conversations with experts on the topics I am writing about. I love this stage, before the synopsis of the novel is fully formed and I have the flexibility to veer in any direction that interests me. The second stage is during the writing itself when I realise that I need much more detailed research on specific aspects of the book, such as a historical figure, a performance, costumes, the choreography of a ballet. This takes up significant amounts of time, making the writing process slow almost to a halt, but it is essential for creating an authentic, historically accurate world.

Historical fiction is a great introduction to history. Can you recommend any historians to our readers to learn more about your period?

The dance historians whose books were invaluable to me while I was writing Clara & Olivia (entitled The Dance of the Dolls in the US and Canada), as well as my second ballet-themed novel, The Sleeping Beauties, are numerous. Judith Mackrell’s book about the ballerina Lydia Lopokova Bloomsbury Ballerina is a fascinating read, as is Meredith Daneman’s biography of Margot Fonteyn. For a first-hand account of the development of British Ballet, I recommend Dame Ninette de Valois’s books, in particular her memoir, Come Dance With Me.

What three pieces of advice would you give to a budding historical novelist, looking to write and publish their first book?

First, enjoy the research! You will spend hundreds of hours in your time period and specific setting, both in the writing of the novel, and after publication when discussing your book. It must be a time and setting that fascinates you, right down to the tiniest detail.

Second, don’t use everything you research. Historical fiction is about story-telling, and too much unnecessary historical detail will make the narrative impenetrable.

Third, allow yourself the freedom to use your imagination – while historical events, people, places, are exciting for your readers to explore, they will keep reading your book because of the characters you create and the way these characters navigate their world.

If you could choose to meet any historical figure from your period, who would it be and why?

I’d love to say the founder of The Royal Ballet, Dame Ninette de Valois (known in the ballet world as ‘Madam’), or a famous ballet dancer such as Margot Fonteyn, Alicia Markova, or Robert Helpmann. However, I think I’d be terrified – ballet dancers, especially ballet teachers, are formidable people. I would, instead, meet Frederick and Dora Freed, the founders of Freed of London, the pointe shoe manufacturer, that opened in 1929 in a tiny workshop basement in Covent Garden – a key setting in my first novel. I’d love to find out more about how they ended up making these beautiful satin shoes.

Similarly, if you could witness one event from history, what would it be and why?

In my second novel, The Sleeping Beauties (coming February 2024), the novel builds towards the re-opening of the Royal Opera House as a theatre after its function as a dance hall during the war. I would have loved to have been at that performance of The Sleeping Beauty in February 1946, watching the curtain rise on the spectacle of a theatre salvaged and restored, the challenge of fabric ration coupons creatively overcome. It is hard to imagine how it must have felt to watch Margot Fonteyn arising from her sleep as Princess Aurora after all those years of war.

Which other historical novelists do you admire?

My favourite writer is Sarah Waters. I admire the way she builds a vivid sense of time and place alongside gripping and dramatic character-driven stories. I love Tracy Chevalier’s novels, in particular her focus on works of art or important cultural moments in history. Recently I have loved The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins. Set in both Georgian England and a Jamaican sugar plantation, it is about a woman’s fight for justice and the right to be heard.

When first sketching out an idea for a novel, which comes first – the protagonist, plot or history?

All three emerge in parallel, driving one another forward with interwoven ideas. For my debut novel, it was a combination of the story of the ballet Coppélia (two men’s obsession with a life-sized doll), the bond of twin sisters, and the specific time and place of Sadler’s Wells theatre in the 1930s. The story materialised gradually during the research, and it never stopped shifting and changing until the final edits were complete.

Do you have a daily routine as a writer? Also, how important is it to know other writers and have a support network?

I was an English teacher for thirteen years, and therefore my writing took place in intense bursts during the school holidays. Recently I have moved to New York City and am writing full time. I write best in the mornings and then I like to work away from home in the afternoons, to keep me focused. Libraries are my favourite (no need to buy expensive coffee and everyone is quiet, mostly). The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts is a wonderful place to work, especially for a historical fiction writer researching ballet and theatre. They have every reference book I need! The writing life can be isolating, however, so I have been proactive in meeting other writers and finding support in our shared experiences.

Can you tell us about the project you are working on at the moment?

My next book is in the final editing stages and I am very excited for its publication in February 2024. It is called The Sleeping Beauties and is set in the years surrounding WW2. Culminating in the historical performance of The Sleeping Beauty that re-opened the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, after the war, it is a novel about the dangerous paths we will take to avoid facing reality.

Lucy Ashe is a writer and the author of Clara & Olivia.