Do join us for our talk on literary friendship at Margate’s literary festival on August 20th. Or why not make a weekend of it and stick around for Emma’s appearance at the literary lounge on August 21st, where she will be talking about her debut novel, Owl Song at Dawn?
We are really looking forward to two days of literary fun and friendship down by the sea. The line-up includes friends of Something Rhymed, Maggie Gee and Salena Godden, who wrote a joint guest post for us back in 2014 and appeared at our first Something Rhymed Salon.
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.
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?
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!
One of the struggles Emma Claire and I face when we compose our profiles on each month’s literary pair is how to condense many years of friendship into just a few hundred words. Interesting episodes and key details about each woman’s personality often have to go by the wayside for the short-form writing we do here on Something Rhymed.
Marianne Moore’s commitment to lifelong learning, well into old age, was an aspect of her life that almost failed to make the cut. Moore’s enthusiasm for dance and even creative writing classes, though intriguing, didn’t seem to be quite relevant enough to her friendship with fellow poet Elizabeth Bishop.
But when we thought of the great affection with which Bishop had written about this aspect of Moore’s character, we decided it was something we wanted to explore through our writing this month.
The subject of adult education had, in fact, been floating around my mind ever since February’s Something Rhymed challenge, when I took Emma Claire to see a gallery exhibition about the Russian ballet The Bolt.
Ballet has been a love of mine for many years, and – having previously had lessons from the ages of four to eighteen – I took it up again as a hobby a few years ago. Like Emma Claire’s morning yoga sessions, it is an activity that hovers around the fringes our friendship. I’ve occasionally met her before or after an evening at the studio, and have mentioned class to her in passing, but a lack of shared vocabulary means I’d never thought to talk of it in detail, thinking it would be boring for her.
That trip to the gallery made me rethink my reticence, though – its costumes, rehearsal photographs and choreographer’s notes sparking questions from Em, not just about the exhibition itself, but also my own long-held fascination with this dance form. I was soon recalling the elderly babysitter, Mrs Tomlinson, who had enchanted my imagination at four-years-old with her crayon drawings of the Nutcracker’s Sugar Plum Fairy and the sad story of Swan Lake. I told Em of my childhood (highly unrealistic) dream of becoming a professional dancer, and also the rewarding but humbling experience of returning to ballet as an adult after such a long hiatus.
An idea for a story about dancing had pushed me to take the plunge and buy a new pair of ballet shoes. I’d wanted to immerse myself in that world again, because I wanted to write about it.
But taking class has, in fact, enriched my life in other unpredicted ways. It’s a part of the week to which I now always look forward. An hour-and-a-half of ballet makes for a wonderful way to change gears after several hours at my desk. The concentration required to try to master the steps empties my mind of any work-related stresses, and afterwards I feel refreshed and more enthusiastic about whatever I have to do tomorrow.
Being an initially extremely rusty student has also helped me in my work as a teacher. The experience of being unable to remember where to place my arms, and finding my feet no longer seem to work as they used to, has served as a great reminder of how daunting it might be for one of my adult writing students, who finds themself sitting in a classroom again after many years out in the world of work.
Though it’s unlikely we’ll ever find ourselves standing together at the barre, I’d been wondering, since our visit to the Bolt exhibition, about other ways in which Emma Claire and I might enjoy ballet again together. Then I heard about the Royal Ballet’s new production Woolf Works – based on the writing of Virginia Woolf – which opens in London this month.
Emma Claire and I have just bought tickets, and I’m excited to go and see a performance with her for the first time. Not only should it give me the chance to share with her something more of my love of ballet, but the subject matter will surely open up new conversations about one of Em’s own great passions, the writing of Virginia Woolf.