No Surer Foundation for Friendship: Sophie Butler and Miranda Mills

We first got to know the writer Miranda Mills when she asked us if she could interview us about our book for Tea & Tattle, the podcast she runs with her best friend, academic and writer Sophie Butler. We’ve since enjoyed catching up on their other episodes, and found ourselves particularly fascinated by one discussion in which they talk about the literary beginnings of their long-lasting bond. This week, they explore this subject further in a new piece for Something Rhymed.

Sophie Butler (left) and Miranda Mills

Miranda: 
Whenever I think about my friendship with Sophie, I think of one of my favourite quotes by P.G. Wodehouse: ‘There is no surer foundation for a beautiful friendship than a mutual taste in literature.’ I have certainly found this to be true.

Nowadays, the fact that we began our acquaintance as thirteen-year-old pen-pals, scribbling letters to each other that flew weekly across the Atlantic Ocean, is hard to imagine. No Whatsapp, no Facebook – we didn’t even email! But from the very first letter that I exchanged with Sophie, where we described our mutual love for the Chalet School  books by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer, I knew I’d found what I’d been searching for since reading Anne of Green Gables – a kindred spirit.

It never fails to come as a small shock to me to realise that Sophie and I have always been
long-distance friends; perhaps because it feels as though, from those first hastily torn open envelopes, we’ve never stopped talking. Books have always been a common theme in our friendship. As undergraduates, we’d plan out trips to our favourite book shops: when Sophie visited me in London, we made the rounds of Persephone Books, Daunt and Foyles. Weekend jaunts of mine to Oxford would culminate in blueberry muffins and gossip at Blackwells. Many of our favourite authors were read in sync: Jane Austen, Nancy Mitford, P.G. Wodehouse, Dorothy L. Sayers

Today, our conversations about life and the books we’re reading are broadcast to thousands of listeners around the world, through our podcast, Tea & Tattle. I can only imagine how thrilled our thirteen-year-old selves would be if they knew.

Sophie:

Throughout my teenage years, suffering from M.E. and being home-schooled, much of my interaction with the world came through the written word. Confined to the house for long periods, my bookshelves became increasingly important, allowing me to travel anywhere from the Austrian classrooms of the Chalet School series to the country-houses of Bertie Wooster and his friends. If only I had someone with whom to discuss my discoveries!

I remember my excitement when I read the first letters Miranda sent me from America, responding to my appeal for pen-pals in a Chalet School appreciation society newsletter. Not only did she like and dislike the same Chalet School characters as I did (vitally important for a thirteen-year-old school story fan), but (what amazement!) she had read The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and preferred it to Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. With such markers of good taste, how could we fail to become firm friends?

Together, we explored the works of our mutual favourite, Jane Austen, recommending biographies to one another and delving into collections of Austen’s letters to discuss them in our own. I’ve no doubt that it was through these discussions, taking place across hundreds of sheets of paper and thousands of miles, that I began my journey towards becoming a University Lecturer in English Literature.

Through these epistolary conversations, I discovered my interest in exploring a literary subject in its historical context, the fun of following up literary leads, and, most of all, the joy of analyzing literature – and so much else – with a like-minded friend. But much as I treasure my collection of old letters, I’m rather glad that Miranda and I now don’t need to put pen to paper whenever we want a chat!

Miranda Mills and Sophie Butler co-host the Tea & Tattle podcast, which celebrates female friendship and creativity. This incorporates Tea Reads, for which they discuss some of their favourite short reads (none of which should take longer than the time it takes to drink a cup of tea).

Miranda blogs at Mirandasnotebook.com. You can also follow her on Instagram: @mirandasnotebook and @mirandasbookcase.

In her work as an English Literature academic, Sophie’s writing focuses on the Renaissance period. You can follow her on Instagram:  @sophie_perdita

Medieval Murderers… and Friends: Susanna Gregory and Karen Maitland

Our guest interview this month comes from two bestselling authors. Susanna Gregory is the author of numerous medieval murder mysteries, Restoration whodunits and other historical crime fiction – something that drew her together with Karen Maitland, the writer of medieval thrillers. They are the sole female members of the Medieval Murderers, a group of popular authors who write historical crime novels together.

Authors with Edwin and Sharon Gregg
Susanna Gregory (left) and Karen Maitland, on a visit to Northern Ireland in 2014, as part of Libraries NI’s Crime Week.

SR: How did the two of you meet? Can you tell us about your first impressions of each other?

Karen: Our first official meeting was when I joined the Medieval Murderers, but in fact I’d first seen Susanna about two years earlier when I was an audience member at a talk she gave about The Tarnished Chalice, the year before my first historical novel was published. I was awe-struck by her knowledge of the medieval period, but also how gentle and self-effacing she was, even though she was such a successful novelist. I couldn’t believe she’d once been in the police-force. Her description of medieval Lincoln in the novel was so well-written and researched, that even though I’d already lived in that city for eight years, it was another six years before I dared set one of my novels in medieval Lincoln.

Susanna: Our first meeting was at an event we did together in Margham Country Park, near Neath, and I remember feeling an instant liking for Karen as we strolled slowly around the shell of the old house there. We chatted nineteen to the dozen to each other, while the others were more interested in finding somewhere to get some lunch! I suppose we should have been talking about the ‘performance’ we were about to give, but what I remember is being rather stressed about having an orthodox Jewish friend to stay, and making sure I got everything right for him diet-wise – I’m not Jewish, and didn’t want to make a stupid mistake. Karen gave me a lot of helpful advice and encouragement – which I’m sure she wasn’t expecting to have to do just before an event! I was very grateful.

SR: From our research into writer friends Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers, who collaborated on works by the Detection Club, we know that writing as part of a collective of authors can present both joys and challenges. How do the Medieval Murderers manage to make things work?

Karen: The six Medieval Murderers authors are scattered all over the UK and most of us live in rural areas. So as most writers based outside London will know, you can feel cut off from the literary scene. You can’t just pop along to launch party for an hour after work. But the advantage modern writers have, which Dorothy L. Sayers and Agatha Christie didn’t, is email. One of the MMs, Ian Morson, has kept copies of all the emails the MM’s members have exchanged over the years, which reveals every step in the process of our writing collaboration throughout the ten MM novels, which should make fascinating reading for researchers in the future, if only to reveal the dark and twisted imaginations of six crime writers.

Susanna: When we collaborate, we probably generate hundreds of emails – someone has a concept, and the rest of us respond with answers and opinions. Usually, one of us comes up with some central theme that will hold all our stories together – such as a dangerous book, a curse or a weapon – and then we toss ideas around between us for a while, until we have something that works. Naturally, there’s a fair amount of tweaking along the way, but it’s a lot of fun.

SR: Can you tell us about something you particularly admire in your friend’s approach to writing?

Karen: I hugely admire Susanna’s ability to plot historical crime, whether it’s in a long novel or novella. It seems effortless, though I know it isn’t. She can judge exactly how many murder suspects, clues and twists there needs to be in different lengths of stories and that’s something I tried to learn from her when I began to write the MM novellas. She also has the skill to make the reader feel they know the characters in depth as living people, regardless of whether she has an entire novel to develop them in or just a novella.

Susanna: Karen’s research into her era is meticulous, and she knows far more about some aspects of life in medieval times than I do, particularly about women and fringe religions. My research tends to be manuscript-based, and as most scribes were monks, I tend to have their view of events, but Karen’s research is much more wide-ranging. As I have male protagonists, the Latin sources are usually fine, but I’ve learned a lot about 14th century attitudes to women from Karen, which has helped me greatly with my stories.

SR: Writing seems to be central to your friendship. Do you ever see each other in other contexts?

DSCF1305
Susanna and Karen, appearing together at Libraries NI’s Crime Week.

Karen: We share a love of rescue chickens. I used to keep them and Susanna does now, so we’ve exchanged tips such as coaxing them into a hen-house at night with tinned sweet corn and we’ve sympathised with each other when we’ve lost birds we adore. Hens, especially those who suddenly experience freedom after a life in a cage, radiate such joy. It’s contagious.

Susanna: I would certainly ask Karen for help if I was stuck with some aspect of my research, but I also confide in her as you do with any friend. We talk about our families, our work, our publishers, our likes and dislikes – just like any two people with a lot in common and a respect for each other’s opinions. Karen helped my husband and me a lot with advice and moral support when we got our beloved chickens – having birds as pets isn’t always easy, and Karen is always sympathetic and understanding when things go wrong. And she listens so patiently when I blather on about their antics, and is always ready with a smile!

SR: We set up Something Rhymed because we’d noticed that literary bonds between famous female authors are generally less well-known than the great male writing friendships. Do you have any thoughts on why this might be?

Karen: If women begin a professional literary friendship, in most cases it seems to rapidly become a personal friendship. In the past, male to male friendships appeared to be more task-based and operate in public through work, sports or hobbies. So, I wonder if the reason female friendships are less well-known is because the famous female authors themselves talked and wrote publically much less often about their friendships than men did, perhaps regarding these friendships as private, if what they discussed was more deeply personal.

Susanna: The first thought that springs into my mind is that there have been more ‘famed’ male writers than female, historically speaking, which means it isn’t really a fair comparison. Give us a few years …

Karen: I’ve noticed in the email writing circles that I belong to that many of the male authors join in discussions when it’s about writing/publishing/promotion, whereas female authors also talk about family life and problems in these groups. The women often temporarily cut the men out of the group email address list when the discussion turns deeply personal or is about emotional issues. Are male authors doing the same and cutting female authors out of group emails when discussing certain topics? I’d love to know!

Susanna Gregory’s most recent novel is A Poisonous Plot: The Twenty-First Chronicle of Matthew Bartholomew, published by Sphere. She also writes with her husband Beau Riffenburgh, under the name Simon Beaufort.

Karen Maitland’s most recent novel is The Raven’s Head, published by Headline Review.

Crying Tears of Laughter: Irenosen Okojie and Yvette Edwards

In her work as a reviewer for the Sunday Times, Dorothy L. Sayers often took the opportunity to praise the work of her friend Agatha Christie – calling Murder on the Orient Express, for example, ‘a murder mystery conceived and carried out on the finest classical lines’. Inspired by this, we asked April’s guest bloggers, Yvette Edwards and Irenosen Okojie, to each sing the praises of their writer friend.

They met when they appeared together at a literary event, a couple of years ago. Irenosen takes up the story:

SONY DSCIt was a platform to showcase new writers; at that point the buzz had started to build about Yvette’s writing. When she read, her work immediately captured me. It was evocative, fearless and powerful.

Not only that but she was very warm, generous and humble. She was the star attraction on the bill but she didn’t behave that way and she didn’t distance herself from me or the other writer. She was incredibly chatty, curious about our writing journeys and happy to offer advice.

One of the images I never forget from that evening was Yvvettes’s mother managing her stack of books being the literary equivalent of a roadie. I enjoyed this tiny window into their relationship.

We all exchanged details; afterwards, I bought a copy of her book A Cupboard Full of Coats. It was so engrossing I read it in one sitting. What I really loved was that the female protagonist was complex and darkly drawn, unapologetically so. It is a brilliant debut novel, a heartbreaking read worth every penny.

One of the things I admire about Yvvette is her tenacity. She didn’t have an easy writing journey but she never gave up.

Over the next year, we’d bump into each other at literary gatherings, our friendship developed from there. We’d email back and forth and she’d encourage me to keep writing when things were difficult. Writing can be such an isolating endeavour that friendships and support are invaluable.

My favourite thing about her other than her literary prowess is her humour. She’s one of the most hilarious writers I know and is never without a funny anecdote or encounter. I cry with laughter whenever we meet up. She could have been a stand-up comedian had she not wanted to go into fiction writing. She’s a natural storyteller. When you engage with her, this becomes apparent.

It’s been fun and heartening watching her journey so far being both a fan and a friend.

Yvette says:

iphone pics 202

Irenosen is a power ball of energy that continually amazes me. She is always busy, is always writing as well as juggling various projects, passionate about everything literary, from the craft itself to championing events, interviewing other authors, getting involved in awards and prizes, reading, judging, spreading the word.

I think her website is a perfect reflection of her as a person and as a creative.  It is warm, full, interesting, regularly updated, filled with information about her own work as well as the projects she’s involved in.

It is vast and varied and quirky. You could pop in, intending only a short visit and a quick browse, and hours later still be clicking into tabs and links, discovering fabulous pics, astute observations and confident commentary, writing that’s rich, humorous, profound. It’s impossible to sum up either Irenosen or her website with a mere handful of words.

And that’s what her writing is like. It defies strait-laced and simple definition.  It doesn’t slip into any pre-packaged boxes or notions or expectations.  You can never exactly anticipate the journey she’ll take you on, or the destination you’ll reach, but you can be confident it will be interesting, that there will be surprises in store, that you will be challenged and entertained along the way, that you’ll emerge from your journey both heady and giddy, like stepping off a super roller coaster at a different place to where your journey began.

And if you do decide to take the matter up with her, there is every possibility she’ll hug you, throw her head back and laugh.

A Cupboard Full of Coats (Oneworld) by Yvette Edwards was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, and shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize.

Irenosen Okojie’s first novel, Butterfly Fish, and a collection of short stories, Speak Gigantular, will be published in June 2015 by Jacaranda Books.

Travellers on the Same Road

Image by Luke Detwiler (Creative Commons Licence).
Image by Luke Detwiler (Creative Commons Licence).

Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers never shared the extraordinary levels of closeness enjoyed by their contemporaries Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby, who saw each other as literary ‘travelling companions’.

Neither were they spurred on by the kind of highly motivating personal rivalry that fired the bond between modernists Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf, another pair of author friends of a similar generation.

What Christie and Sayers had instead was a solid working friendship, and, for them, this was presumably enough. For Emma Claire and me it never has been, though.

As some of our readers will already be aware, we got to know each other at a time when we were both living carefree lives as young English teachers in rural Japan. It was still some months before we’d admit to anyone else – and each other first – that we had serious ambitions to write, and so, although I remember us sometimes talking about books we were reading, writing was not a big part of our friendship. We spent our time doing other things: travelling the country, going to parties, and sampling the wares of local noodle shops and bars.

Back then, I would have been delighted to be told that, once we’d ‘come out’ to each other as would-be authors, the similar direction in which we’d chosen to travel would allow us to support each other through the years to come: celebrating individual triumphs as a pair, providing each other with a sympathetic ear when necessary, and –  through our mutual interest in female literary friendship – eventually finding a way to write together.

Image by maroubal2. Creative Commons licence.
Image by maroubal2. (Creative Commons Licence).

This would have sounded fantastic, and of course it is. What could be better than your closest co-worker also being one of your closest friends?

The only niggling problem is that recently it began to dawn on us that, bit by bit over time, our whole friendship had become consumed by work. When we went out for the evening, supposedly for fun, our thoughts would soon turn to ideas for feature articles we could write together. When one of us invited the other over for dinner, we’d find ourselves talking about the next literary event we’d be doing together, or our jobs at the universities at which we both teach.

Now that we’ve become aware of this, we’ve started to make a concerted effort to have times when we turn off the ‘shop talk’, although sometimes it can be hard. As I write this, I’m acutely aware that, despite having sent Emma Claire three emails today and talked with her on the phone, each of these conversations was about our various joint projects.

That’s why it was especially good to go out for cocktails and noodles recently. The drinks were fancier than the cans of alcoholic fruit Chu-hi that we used to buy in our twenties. The ramen broth was floating with all sorts of extra ingredients unseen in the traditional joints we used to frequent. But there was something about the night’s holiday atmosphere that took me back to those heady, early days in Japan.

It reminded me that, though a working writers’ friendship is a wonderful thing, to have found someone with whom you can truly ‘travel’ is many, many times better.

Cocktails and Candour

London buzzed with a carnival energy on the night Emily and I met for cocktails at the Hotel Café Royal. It was the evening before the Easter weekend and Piccadilly Circus milled with people who had just arrived or were just about to depart, almost everyone wheeling cases or carrying backpacks or cradling cones of spring flowers.

Something Rhymed’s April ‘challenge’ to follow in the footsteps of Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers provided the perfect excuse to embrace the city’s festive atmosphere. Surrounded by holidaymakers and all decked out in my cocktail dress, I took in afresh the grandeur of Regent Street – its buildings tall and white against the clear blue sky.

Inside the revolving doors of the Hotel Café Royal, I entered a marble lobby filled with tall vases of orchids, and the bustle of the street gave way to a hushed sense of glamour. It was easy to imagine Christie and Sayers, the Queens of Crime, meeting here with fellow members of the Detection Club, for their lavish club dinners.

The Café Royal, London (William Orpen, 1912). Creative Commons License.
The Café Royal, London (William Orpen, 1912). Creative Commons License.

Unlike the ‘shop talk’ that took up much of their usual meetings, the club’s spring and summer dinners focused more on celebration.

Now that Emily and I teach at the same university, co-write literary features and run Something Rhymed together, we have to remind ourselves to make time for purely socialising. But we long ago pledged to mark every writing success, however small. During the past few years this commitment to celebration has become more important still.

In the Green Bar, we toasted Something Rhymed over a pink champagne cocktail and a luridly blue martini, and we agreed just to chat for a while, putting off the task we’d set ourselves to compose our own set of literary rules.

We got on with that part of April’s activity in the distinctly less rarified surroundings of a Soho noodle joint, writing in between slugs of Asashi beer, and miraculously managing to avoid staining our dresses with broth.

This ramen shop brought to mind the early days of our friendship, when we both taught English in rural Japan, secretly writing in between classes. Looking back on the ways our friendship has developed since then, we realised that another unspoken ‘rule’ had developed over the years and that we had this to thank for the development of our collaboration: as well as committing ourselves to celebration we’ve also committed ourselves to candour.

Rules
Rules for Our Collaborative Work

I’ve learnt so much from Emily about the importance of honesty, and the courage it sometimes takes to speak the truth as we see it. This is not to say that we talk about all aspects of our lives: there remain subjects we keep to ourselves or are more likely to discuss with others. But whether we’re seeking advice on personal matters, critiquing each other’s fiction, dividing workloads, or thrashing out a line of enquiry in our collaborative writing, we always endeavour to speak our minds.

This fundamental tenet led us to formulate a few more specific rules. In terms of maintaining trust between each other, we’ll always be clear about which projects we’d like to work on together and which we’d prefer to tackle alone, and we’ve also agreed that we must never co-publish anything that we can’t both stand by. And in terms of establishing trust with our readers, we’ve promised always to acknowledge speculation.

In this way, we hope that our collaboration will thrive and, more importantly, that our friendship will endure for a lifetime.

Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers

Despite some parallels in their childhoods, and their shared status as ‘Golden Age’ queens of crime, the differences between Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers were far more profound.

Agatha Christie (Creative Commons licence)
Agatha Christie, 1890-1976 (Creative Commons licence)

Agatha Mary Clarissa Miller was schooled largely at home. Her mother had wanted to hold her back from reading until she was eight, but by the age of five the impatient girl managed to teach herself.

While Christie’s learning was relatively ad hoc, and focused ultimately on helping her to find a good husband, the parents of Dorothy Leigh Sayers (who also educated her at home) kept her to a rigorous schedule.

Dorothy L Sayers
Dorothy L. Sayers, 1893-1957 (Image used with the kind permission of the Dorothy L. Sayers Society.)

Sayers eventually won a scholarship to Somerville College at the University of Oxford (also the alma mater of writer friends Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby) and went on to a series of jobs, most successfully in the advertising industry.

Later in life she would return to academia, her translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy becoming the work of which she felt most proud. But most remember her as the author of the Lord Peter Wimsey novels, and it was this position as a writer of detective fiction that led her into a friendship with Christie.

Both were members of the Detection Club. This group of leading crime writers, who met regularly to socialise and talk shop, had to abide by a strict set of literary rules designed to give the reader a fair chance of guessing the guilty party in their books. They also jointly-penned several mysteries, three of which – the novel The Floating Admiral and two radio serials – included both Christie and Sayers as contributors.

Each woman’s attitudes to these activities illustrate the contrast in their personalities. Sayers devised the club’s elaborate initiation rituals, threw herself into ceremonies with gusto, and took on the formidable task of organising her fellow writers for their collaborations.

The reserved Christie, on the other hand, merely submitted to her initiation. When she accepted the role of president (succeeding Sayers) it was on the condition that someone else be appointed to make speeches and chair events.

When working on the radio serials, she often proved elusive, leading to frantic phone calls and letters between her and Sayers when at last she’d been tracked down. But Sayers also sent notes praising Christie’s recent fiction and divulged her exasperation at what they both saw as unnecessary interference by J.R. Ackerley, their BBC producer.

The feeling, incidentally, appears to have been mutual. Ackerley later recalled that, though Christie was one of his favourite detective fictionists, he believed she was a ‘little on the feeble side’ as a broadcaster – adding that ‘anyone in that series would have seemed feeble against the terrific vitality, bullying and bounce of that dreadful woman Dorothy L. Sayers’.

Able to earn far more from other writing endeavours, Christie’s sense of loyalty to Sayers was probably a major reason why she agreed to take part in even as many of these joint ventures as she did. But Sayers also came to her friend’s aid on several occasions, including joining in with the search for the author during her famous 1926 ‘disappearance’. She also provided a vital supporting vote when disgruntled members of the Detection Club, unhappy with the ‘unfair’ plot of her Poirot mystery The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, called for Christie to be expelled.

It has been said that, partially due to her shyness, Christie had few intimate female friends. But with Sayers she established an important working friendship, and one on which each woman was able to draw for support through the glory years of their success.

Activity

The Detection Club often held their official dinners at London’s Café Royal. This month, we will visit this historic venue for a cocktail or two. Since the Detection Club sometimes wrote collaboratively and also came up with a series of rules to abide by, we will come up with a list of ‘rules’ for the writing we do together.