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.
The Miniaturist Interviews: Romola Garai
Romola Garai plays Marin Brandt in The Miniaturist, premiering soon on BBC-1, here she talks about what drew her to the drama and being in a costume drama where she pretty much only gets to wear one costume.
What attracted you to the role of Marin?
I’d read the book shortly after it came out and I thought it was a really surprising novel, really interesting and with very strong feminist themes in it, so I was very excited about it. Time passed and then an email popped into my inbox with the subject, The Miniaturist. I thought it was fantastic they were making it and I was really excited to read the script.
It’s a very genre-bending novel; it appears to be like a costume drama we have seen before, but very quickly we realise that it’s not that. It’s about a woman coming into her own in a society that’s very patriarchal, it’s about a love affair, it’s about discrimination, and it’s about people trying to survive in an incredibly controlled state. It’s a thriller and it’s also a story about political and emotional awakening.
Marin is a particularly interesting character, I think she has one of the best arcs. When I first read the book, she was the character that stayed with me, and when I read the scripts I immediately remembered everything about her. She’s told in beautiful detail in the novel, which John has retained in the script. Marin is just a great character to play, it was a real treat.
Tell us about Marin.
When you first meet her, because the story is told through Nella’s perspective, you meet a woman who seems very cold and intimidating. Then gradually you get this drip-feed of information about her; you see she’s been helping Johannes run the business and you learn that they were orphaned at a young age. She’s very intellectual, she’s very well read, and she’s not married, which is very unusual at the time.
One of the reasons I found her such a fascinating character is that she’s full of secrets and she’s layered; very conflicted and has great faith, but also passions. The house they live in is essentially a tinder box of secrets that Marin has been sitting on to try and stop the secrets exploding out. However although it seems she is trying to keep a lid on it I think she believes that they could subtly break all the rules and be free within the house at least, if only her brother stopped acting so recklessly.
Hopefully audiences will question what is driving her hostility towards Nella. Marin needs Nella a lot to maintain the appearance of being a normal household but it’s also very important that Nella is afraid of her so that she doesn’t try digging and discovering the secrets that they are all trying to keep – because if anyone finds out then their futures are ruined.
What was it like doing the scenes between Marin and Nella?
I loved working with Anya, she’s an incredibly accomplished actress. She’s got a difficult job in this, because Nella has to be very innocent at the beginning of the story, which is always difficult for an actor to play, and also more innocent that a woman of that age would be now. She’s constantly making discoveries, she doesn’t have the information that the rest of us do so she’s always learning new things, and she’s done that with real beauty and subtlety. I really enjoyed doing all our scenes together.
Tell us about Marin’s costume.
Marin only had one costume until a very late stage of the story. Her costume is typical of the puritan values of the period which rejected anything that smacked of luxury or louche values. They also didn’t wear make-up in this period at all, certainly not women of this class and station, and the hair was very simple and scraped back. Her head would have been covered at all times, so I had a black cap that I wore, but to be honest when I wore it I couldn’t really hear what anyone was saying and also talked incredibly loudly because I couldn’t hear myself, so essentially I was shouting at the other actors!
What makes The Miniaturist stand out from other period dramas?
I’ve done lots of historical pieces but there’s something very unusual about this. When you do contemporary novels set in the past the writers are able to do a lot more, and tackle complex themes which writers writing at the time weren’t able to do. More than that, it’s interesting in that it explores a number of different genres. It has elements of a thriller and then it becomes a family drama and then it becomes a polemic about what happens in societies that are so controlling.
I hope people will sit down to watch the show because it’s a pretty costume drama and will be surprised that it is actually rebellious and constantly bringing up important issues – and that they’ll be so engaged they won’t be able to look away.
Trust Me Interviews: Sharon Small
Interview with Sharon Small, who plays Dr. Brigitte McAdams in new three part psychological thriller Trust Me which airs this August on BBC One.
What attracted you to this project?
I liked the character and the premise of the piece – I don’t think we’ve seen this before. And everyone is like an armchair detective, everyone is an armchair actor or doctor, so I thought that people would get off on that and think, gosh what would I do in that circumstance? The audience are the people who are privy to the truth and not us. With my character, Brigitte, I like her neediness, her sassiness – she’s fun and quick-fire talking – and quite honestly I rather fancied myself as a doctor [laughs].
How would you describe your character?
Brigitte is a good person; she’s sassy and is a really good doctor. She has got some issues, but she is trying her best to run this ward and with great intentions, which I think a lot of NHS doctors are.
How did you prepare for the role?
I grew my hair so that I could tie it up – normally I have short hair. We had a fantastic medical training day with Dan and got to do airways and cannulas and stitching and things like that, I loved that. The most important thing for me was to go around the actual A&E department (or ED department as I now know it’s called) in Edinburgh. We met this fantastic doctor – just watching him and really getting to observe what goes on in a ward, the dynamic, what people do and noticing that people are always looking at folders, everyone’s always collaborating and talking to each other. Everyone is always moving around, a lot more than you think and not that quickly. It’s less dramatic than you think.
Is your character challenging to play?
She was. Similarly in something that Jodie mentioned, I had quite a lot of medical jargon to say quite quickly, but I had less of the procedural stuff to do in terms of operational things. As the character is more and more revealed I had to make sure that I took care of how that happened, and that it was subtly done.
What makes a hospital a good arena for a drama?
It’s an ever-changing landscape, a hospital. Every new sort of event that you’re presented with means that you’re having to make life-saving decisions. People’s lives really are at stake, and honestly, my little taste of pretending that I was an ED doctor made me feel quite powerful. If I could fix people so that they survived, that would be an amazing ability.
What are the biggest challenges that you have faced so far during filming?
Saying the medical words Metronidazole – Met-ron-ida-zole, Metron-i-dazole – and trying to make scrubs look even remotely interesting, I don’t rock scrubs like Jodie does, I’m way too curvy for that!
What do you hope audiences will take away from this drama?
I hope that they’ll find themselves in that dilemma of wanting Cath/Ally to succeed, because she’s a good person and she ironically is brilliant at the job. I’m hoping that they’ll see the dilemma that she has, and as you want her to keep succeeding, it means she’s going to keep compromising people as she goes, as well as herself.
Trust Me Interviews: Jodie Whittaker
Jodie Whittaker plays Cath in three part psychological thriller Trust Me which airs on BBC One this August.
What appealed to you about this project?
I was sent the script for the first episode and it fascinated me because it went in a completely different direction to how I thought it was going to. Particularly at the beginning when she’s suspended for whistleblowing and loses her job. It could have gone so many ways, and the fact that she takes on this new identity isn’t the way that I thought it would go. I love the fact that her choices are quite morally dubious – they certainly aren’t black and white. She makes decisions that are quite challenging to justify, even though we know her reasons. I’ve never acted in anything medical before, so it felt completely new.
How does Cath’s lie come about?
Cath starts off by having a conversation with her best friend, Ally, who is a middle grade doctor in A&E and is giving it all up to emigrate to New Zealand. Ally is packing up the life that Cath would have loved to have had, leaving it all behind to go and do something completely different. Suddenly there is an opportunity for her to take on the identity of her friend and in that panic, not necessarily the clearest thinking moment in her life, she does it. Once you set off on a path of lies it’s very difficult to undo it without bringing everything crashing down.
Did you receive any training on medical procedures?
Yes! The writer, Dan, who is also medical consultant and a doctor outside of TV production, showed us a load of stuff that he used when he was training people. He brought in the CPR dummy and showed us how to do a cannula and he, very bravely, let me put a cannula in his vein. I did it right, thank God! Also, YouTube is amazing. The genius of the internet is that you can basically sit at home and Google medical procedures, and TV shows such as 24 hours in A&E, which I watched hours of.
How else did you prepare for the role?
With regards to the technical stuff, we had an on-set consultant so that there was always someone to help when we had to do the procedures. The best thing for me was that my character was also out of her depth and didn’t always know what she was doing, so it kind of covered my own personal fumbles. I’m not someone who likes to over prepare for dialogue scenes, because I think that makes me not listen to what the other person is saying as I’ve already decided how I’m going to do it. It immediately makes it interesting and new and you can’t plan for that, which is great. You can’t ‘wing’ the medical stuff so I had to do my research for that. One of my friends is a Sister in A&E and I sent her a lot of messages asking ‘how do you pronounce this?’ and ‘what does that mean?’, so basically she was my personal medical coach even though she works full time!
Is it challenging playing someone who leads a double life?
Yes, but no more challenging that playing someone who has had something happen to them that I haven’t personally experienced. What’s hard is trying to gauge how good a liar she is, or how in a panic she is. You’ve got to be careful, because you can’t make the other actors seem stupid. These are intelligent, fully formed characters that you’re working with, so it was a fine line of being able to deceive and it not being something that comes easily to her. However, it can’t be that it makes everyone around her feel a bit like an idiot for not working it out. That was tricky, but the director is there to help guide you through it.
Did the uniform help to get you into character?
Yes. It feels odd when you put it on. I did five weeks of studio filming, back to back – all the medical stuff was contained so everything started to become a bit like second nature. The first few times I had to put on an apron, the ‘take’ ended up being about 15 minutes long. Then I worked out that you shouldn’t put the gloves on before the apron! There was lots of daft stuff like that, but you then get into a rhythm. It’s good because it makes you immediately feel like you look the part and then all I had to do was make sure that I knew the lines!
What were some of the challenges that you faced during filming?
I’m not very good with learning dialogue when there are lots of medical terms! I enjoy the adrenaline of being on set because I’m quite good at choreography, I respond well to being taught something physically. That’s why I was terrible at school, because they talk you through things rather than physically show you. I enjoyed doing the different types of surgery as it was fascinating, it’s nerve-wracking but you realise that you can do it. Also, the team who created the props put in so much hard work to make sure we didn’t mess up our bits. I struggled with having massive speeches that involved these medical words. I don’t have a brain for that!
Did you enjoy working in Scotland?
I absolutely loved Glasgow! The crew were phenomenal and the city is wonderful. I could move my family up there and we had a great time as there were loads of brilliant restaurants and everyone was lovely. It was brilliant and I would snap up another job there very quickly, although it does get very dark and cold over winter!
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