1. What's the main message you want readers to get from Whip Smart?
I’d like readers to be amused and excited by the adventures that Lola gets herself into, and then—because she’s a flawed heroine, full of contradictions and temper and headstrong desires—caught up in the sometimes dangerous but often brave ways she tries to free herself, or save the day, or learn from her mistakes. As Helen Keller wrote, “Life is a daring adventure, or nothing.”
2. What inspired you to write Whip Smart?
I’m a mad fan of George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman series, reading and rereading them throughout my teenage years and on. I love the way he made Victorian history come alive: I could learn so much about it, the events and the personalities, and also laugh and shake my head at the antics on the battlefield and in the bedroom. Brilliant comedy! A fictional nineteenth century character jammed into real events taking place all over the world, present (somehow) at every battle and piece of skullduggery throughout the Victorian empire. Flashy is a womanizer, a coward, and yet decorated as a hero—wonderful fun, sexy shenanigans. I always wished for a female version—and now, of course, I think that Lola Montez fits the bill!
3. Do you prefer coffee or tea?
I love both. I drink coffee in the morning and then have to desist. I switch to tea for lunch and a cup in the late afternoon, for a pick-me-up. And then, if I can’t sleep, I like the sleepy teas…
4. How long did it take you to write Whip Smart?
The first novel (Lola Montez Conquers the Spaniards) took quite a while because I was writing it in between other writing projects (I’m a playwright)—maybe three or four years. I had to learn how to tell a story in fiction rather than as a stage play. I also had to find Lola’s voice, and play around with how much comedy, love and lust, and action-adventure should be in the books. Finally I went with my instinct, which was: lots!
Once the publisher, Astor + Blue Editions, backed the idea of Whip Smart as a series, the pace increased. I wrote the second novel (Lola Montez and the Poisoned Nom de Plume) in about twelve months from working outline to final editing. The third (Lola Montez Starts a Revolution) will be about the same length of time. The good thing is that I know the character so well now, and I’ve been close to this research material for an even longer time—I’ve loved Lola Montez since I first read about her in George MacDonald Fraser’s second Flashman book, Royal Flash, at age eighteen.
5. What advice would you give to aspiring authors?
A great piece of advice from American playwright Marsha Norman goes something like this: Don’t write about your present, write about your past—write about something that made you angry or afraid, and that, in all the time since it happened, you haven’t been able to forget. There’s power in those strong emotions. She’s right in that if we write about something that’s happening to us in the present, we often don’t have enough perspective on it and the writing will get vague and mushy, or sentimental, or trying to conceal something (perhaps from ourselves) and therefore not truthful.
Another ingredient I think you need in order to really fire yourself into and through the enormous effort it takes to write something big, is that you’ve got to be passionately interested in it over a long, long period of time. You’ve got to want to spend time with these characters, day after day after day, through all the rewrites as well as the initial inspiration. They’ve got to be that fascinating to you. You’ve got to be in love with them—the bad guys as much as the good. You can hardly wait to see them again tomorrow!
6. If you were a color, what color would you be and why?
After this long, hard winter, I have to say: green. A fresh, clean, newly-budded green—because it makes people happy, and just looking at it encourages you to stretch out your muscles and take a deep breath. I love green, all the different shades of it. Green also is one color that looks good on me; I have green eyes, maybe that’s why. I love yellow, but can’t wear it or I look jaundiced; I love red too, and purple, but I think I’ll stay with green for my answer.
7. How much like Lola Montez are you?
That’s a funny question for me. I would have to say ‘a lot.’ People always comment that Lola is “so different from you, you’re so quiet and reserved.” In fact I’m not, once you get to know me—or if I’m in a situation where I feel free to be myself. When I was an actor, I had more opportunity to release my inner clown, perhaps, and teaching at a university has probably made me seem more serious: we all take on roles, in our lives, and that is one of mine. But Lola’s irreverence and her spiky argumentativeness are definitely traits that I share with her. Her need for physical action and exercise is mine as well. Also her talent for getting lost!
I asked my sweetheart the question, and here’s what he said: that my often hidden but kooky sense of humour is front and centre in Whip Smart. Also, that my love of nature and of other creatures in the world vs. my unease with human/urban evil or artifice is very much there too.
8. If you were remembered for a quote, what would the quote be?
“When you ride the tiger, white man, you ride it forever.” It’s a quote from my play Tiger’s Heart, and is based on an African story. I just love it. It’s a warning as well as a promise.
Another favorite one is one I give my students. It’s from Goethe, and is great for writers. “Do not hurry; do not rest.”
From Whip Smart, some friends say the quote they love best is “Fuckity fuck!”
9. What other authors/books do you look up to the most?
One of my favorite writers is Rose Tremain. I admire her novels so much. She’s always trying different things. I love Restoration, The Road Home, Music and Silence and (wonderful) The Colour. Her books are beautifully researched, gloriously imagined.
Other favorites are Small Island (Andrea Levy), Slammerkin (Emma Donaghue), Knowledge of Angels (Jill Paton Walsh), Jack Maggs (Peter Carey), Gilgamesh (Joan London), Life of Pi (Yann Martel), The Outlander (Gil Adamson), The Law of Dreams (Peter Behrens), Garbo Laughs (Elizabeth Hay), The Many Lives and Sorrows of Josephine B (Sandra Gulland).
And very recently, I absolutely fell in love with Jonathan Grimwood’s The Last Banquet. It’s stunning with imagery, strange adventure, outrageousness of all kinds, taking place in France just before the French Revolution. Wonderful.
10. Thank you! Is there anything else you'd like to say?
I hope your readers will be intrigued by my version of Lola Montez, and enjoy the adventures!