Isolde Martyn talks fiction

Isolde Martyn talks to Memorable TV about her career as a novelist and her wonderful new novel Fleur De Lis (published by Pan MacMillan).

Have you always had ambitions to write and when did you first start to take it seriously.
Yes, since I was about thirteen. I wrote my first novel a year later and sent it off. A very gentle rejection letter came back.

You grew up in England but later moved to Sydney what brought about such a major move.
Falling in love with a British geologist at a bus stop in Dorset. He was transferred to WA and asked me to join him in Perth. We moved across to Sydney in 1979.

Your new novel Fleur De Lis has a French Revolution theme, what made you choose that period to write about.
Sheer folly, but it’s an era that fascinates me. When the Bastille fell, people must have had such high hopes of a better world (just like when the Berlin Wall was demolished) but things went wrong. I wanted to look at this great experiment and why it failed. I taught the French Revolution at the University of Western Australia and I have written Adult Extension courses. However, depicting everyday life–Paris on the edge –demanded a new perspective and was quite a challenge.

Sadly, my US publishers would not take Fleur-de-Lis, even though it is upbeat and guaranteed ‘guillotine-free’. American romance readers apparently find the French Revolution too violent.

Most of your work seems to have a historical theme. History is obviously
something you are passionate about.
History for me is life not lists of parliamentary acts. Why historical people made certain decisions, what really happened and I like sharing that passion. Five of us inaugurated the Plantagenet Society of Australia four years ago for people who want to learn more about the Middle Ages (Henry II –Richard III).

Do you have a favourite period you like to write about.
Yes, the Wars of the Roses! Fabulous larger-than-life people like Warwick the Kingmaker and playboy Edward IV. Imagine what must it have been like to be living in England at a time of rebellion and to be caught up in the turbulence!
One good aspect of historical fiction in general is that it allows the author
to put a new slant on things and characters that really took place and existed
is this something you feel strongly about?

Absolutely, we know so little about some eras that it is possible for the historical novelist to suggest hypotheses, and to put emotion back into history. I’m not talking about the love interest but emotion generally. Novelists can also place women back in events. Just because a duchess and her ladies are not mentioned, it doesn’t mean that they weren’t present in the Great Hall. An academic historian could not write a novel about the anonymous woman spy mentioned by the Burgundian chronicler, Philippe de Commynes, but a novelist could. I read about this woman when I was a teenager and always thought she deserved a book to herself — that was how my first published novel The Lady and the Unicorn (not the Tracy Chevalier one) came to life.

I like to keep to the facts as much as I can, but a lot of TV and film screenplays put drama before accuracy. Screenwriter guru Robert McKee wrote:”Historical drama polishes the past into a mirror of the present.” Some readers/viewers don’t want to look at a reflection but to learn more about what actually happened and why. Often I think our intelligence as a viewing audience is underestimated. I’d be interested to know what visitors to your website feel about this.

And how do you decide what characters will feature in your novels.
With the medieval novels, I try to choose historical people that I’m curious about. If most readers have heard of them as well and are keen to learn more, that’s a bonus. In The Silver Bride, I wanted to delve into why the Duke of Buckingham crowned his cousin as Richard III and then turned against him.

With romance a major theme in your works do you worry you may find
yourself typcast as a historical romance genre writer and are you planning to write other kinds of novels in the future.
Uughhhh, labels! Noticing that my books have won awards in romance writing makes some reviewers rub their hands with glee –a chance to show how superior they are and to mock women’s books that have a happy ending. What they should remember is most of the world’s greatest books are about relationships. The Idea of Perfection, Kate Grenville’s novel, that won the Orange prize, was a love story with a happy ending.
Currently I have fans who like the infotainment aspect of my novels. Some of my early manuscripts were very political-historical. Then a London agent warned me I wrote stories that did not have sufficient “emotional intrigue for the middle-brow reader” so I changed the pitch. Transworld (Bantam) published my first novel because they wanted historical romance with much more depth. I do a lot of research for all my novels.
Yes, I’d like to write more broadly. Only a dream, but I wish I had the expertise to write something like Silent Spring, a book that might jolt people’s thinking. Considering it’s 2004, the world is still hell on earth for millions of people.

Do you have a typical writing day and does your research extend to visiting actual locations and so on?
Normally I like to write for about five hours a day and, yes, I like to visit locations.
Readers really appreciate the extra effort and an author can learn so much more –tiny details that bring the scene to life. I’ve had fans write in and say they’ve deliberately walked the castle ramparts at Amboise on the Loire to see where my heroine spy stood.

Who have been your influences as a writer, not necessarily just authors but people who have inspired you to write too?
Will you think I’m crazy if I say Richard III? Reading Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time inspired me to write about the Wars of the Roses and it opened my mind to start questioning history textbooks. I was also lucky enough a few years ago to interview the late Dorothy Dunnett, a brilliant historical novelist. For me, it was like a Buddhist might feel meeting the Dalai Lama. I shall never be able to write like Dorothy but the subtle humour in her style is a perennial inspiration.

Outside of writing what do you enjoy most?
A glass of wine with my husband, a local bushwalk and the company of good friends.

What do you have in the pipeline.
Maybe a novel in the time of King John.