Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Edi's Lighthouse Talk: A L Berridge Interview

Historical Week 2012 - Day Three

Dear Readers,

a warm welcome to the third day within my Historical Week 2012.
It is the day where I turn the focus on author A. L. Berridge which I appreciate a lot. Maybe you can imagine my excitement when she agreed to answer a few questions. You know the word for it. But I hesitate to use the word:


For me it is both a blessing and a curse. So far I did only one and it was a short one.
I spent weeks torturing myself with following question:
What shall I ask an excellent writer and former tv professional with a website which is like a cornucopia of information??? It got even more depressing with the knowledge of this interview shown over at youtube.

The devil on my left shoulder whispered in my ear: “Just copy some of the questions. Nobody will recognize.”
The angel on my right shoulder responded immediately: “Don’t listen to him. Where is your honour?”

The angel won and the devil wallowed in my wearisome process of finding fresh and interesting questions. And this is the result.

Today I have the pleasure to welcome author A. L. Berridge in the lighthouse. Christened as 'Anne Louise', she always has been called 'Louise'. So I hope you don't mind when I use 'Louise' instead of A.L. Berridge.

Hello Louise and a warm welcome to the Lighthouse. Great to have you here.

Thank you for inviting me! What writer wouldn’t be happy to spend time in a Book Lighthouse? I’ve always imagined it as a tower stuffed from floor to ceiling with books, and that’s a lovely place to be.

To be honest I do not want to torture you with the 700th repetition of questions like 'What did you do before starting a career as a writer?" Where does the love for historical fiction came from?" You deliver all these information in entertaining way on your website. I'm much more interested in to show the reader what it means to write historical fiction. I hope you are comfortable with that.

Ah, you have seen through my cunning plan! I quite deliberately included all that information on my website just so I wouldn’t have to keep answering the ‘same old questions’. I’d much rather talk about historical fiction instead!

As I know from your site, A. L. Berridge is your real name. Did you ever think of using a pen name?

In a way I’m already doing it. I’m known to most people as ‘Louise Berridge’, but the publisher preferred me to use initials in order to make it less obvious that I’m a woman. Most genres are ‘gender-neutral’ and nobody minds who’s written them, but military action-adventure is seen as very masculine territory, and there was a fear male readers might be deterred by a woman’s name on the cover. I suppose it’s equivalent to a male writer using a pseudonym to write romances – and I know of two men who do just that.

You write historical fiction. Tomorrow is the publishing date of Into the Valley of Death (pb, 2012) [ISBN-13: 978-0241954102] which is your third book and the first in a new series.
As I review your books (at least two of three) within this week, my readers will get a lot of information about your books. But I think it would be kind, to give the readers a short overview. Would you be so kind to explain in a few words - an anachronism for an author - the frame of your series?

In one sense it’s a very simple one. My hero ‘Harry Ryder’ is a young man with both a grudge and a driving need to prove himself, and he is going to have to do it over the great battlefields of the Victorian British Empire. The first books are set in the Crimean War, but afterwards I hope to take him to India, Abyssinia, China and even Zululand – if the publishers let me go on that long.

But if you’ll let me squeeze in a few more words, there is (I hope) more to it than that.
Many of the principles of the British Empire were rotten at the very core, while the army itself was brutal, corrupt, and rife with ‘cronyism’. I can’t cheer for that, any more than Harry Ryder does. What I can and should do is celebrate the individual heroism that was miraculously born out of it.

The series is therefore not so much about the wars as the individuals who fought in them – the men who actually stood in the Thin Red Line, or charged to the certainty of death down the North Valley in Balaklava. It’s a journey of character, and especially Ryder’s own. In the long term he is fighting to reclaim the right to his own name, but to do that he must first learn what that name means. He must learn to find himself.

And the Crimea is the obvious place to start. You know from Orlando Figes’ book how terrible it was, and that in my second book it will get worse. This was a place where men were neglected, starved and frozen to death, and where their lives were thrown away needlessly by incompetent commanders. The Crimea was a crucible, and while thousands of men died there, those who survived it were forged into the finest steel. It was the proving-ground for people like Sir Garnet Wolseley, Florence Nightingale, Mary Seacole, and even Leo Tolstoy – and it will be so for Harry Ryder too.

You write historical fiction. I know from other sources that you did a lot of research for your books. And in my humble opinion all your books reflect your effort. I’m really interested in your research work which leads to a volley of questions. Let me start with a question which is hopefully not too indiscreet. Do you speak any other language than English?

My spoken French is execrable, but I read it well enough to work from original sources. This has been essential for the Chevalier Series (‘Honour and the Sword’ and ‘In the Name of the King’) and will be vital for later Harry Ryder books where some battle accounts are only available in the works of our French allies. However, even fluent French speakers can struggle with the language of the 17th century, and for ‘In the Name of the King’ I had to enlist the help of an American Professor to make sense of a section of ‘Le Mercure François’ from 1640.

My biggest regret is that I speak neither German nor Russian. I am going to need serious help researching the later Thirty Years War for the Chevalier series, where the best material on Freiburg and 2nd Nordlingen is all in German.

The absence of Russian has not so far been too much of a problem with the Crimean series. Because the Russian aristocracy all spoke fluent French, there was considerable correspondence after the war between the Russian commanders and our own chroniclers, so that (for instance) Alexander Kinglake’s massive ‘Expedition to the Crimea’ contains information and interpretation obtained (directly or indirectly) from Menschikov, Gorchakov, Liprandi, and even Todleben himself, the great German engineer who did so much to save Sevastopol. There are also Russian historians today who work with English writers, like Natalia Ishchenko, who collaborated with Ian Fletcher to produce the definitive work on the Battle of the Alma.

I like your reply which include the answer what I wanted to ask next: Do you contact people people who are well grounded in the topic you are interested in? Let's continue with my next question.
Do you visit libraries, universities and other instituions and how difficult it is to get access to specific documents?

I’ve visited a lot of museums – in England, France, and the Ukraine. Individual regimental museums have the best resources in the UK, but I needed to go to Sevastopol to see such human details as camp kettles and field ovens from the Crimean War. The army museum of Les Invalides in Paris is one of my favourite places in the world, and I could spend whole days there without ever noticing the passage of time.

Libraries are more difficult. My membership of the Bodleian Library in Oxford gives me access to most worldwide academic institutions, but my limited eyesight makes it hard to study documents when I can’t ‘blow them up’ on my own computer screen. However, the online world makes it relatively simple to track a particular document to a specific library and even obtain its crucial ‘document number’, and I can then ask a local academic to spend a few minutes transcribing or copying it for me. For ‘In the Name of the King’ I spent ages trying to trace a letter written by the Maréchal de Châtillon from the battlefield of La Marfée, and it was through an international List-Serv called H-France that I found a French historian prepared to go and look at it for me.

Research for the Crimea has been even easier. There is a wonderful organization called the Crimean War Research Society, and if I don’t know where to find something there’ll always be several members who do. For ‘Into the Valley of Death’ I was e-mailing backwards and forwards to two very eminent scholars in the field while we all tried to work out the exact location of something referred to as ‘The White House Ravine’.

I’m also lucky enough to have similar help with Russian texts. Sevastopol has an entire library devoted to the Crimean War, and my guide and friend Manita Mishina seems to know every historian in the place. When I wanted to find out where Light Brigade prisoners might have been taken after the Charge, she hauled me into the library, dragged down a professor from an upper floor, and waited with arms folded until he told me exactly what I wanted to know…

There is, however, one very real problem with documents from the Crimea I’d never encountered before, and that’s the British habit of writing across a page twice in order to save paper. Even when you’re familiar with 19th century cursive script that can be almost impossible to decipher.

Crimean letters I studied at the King's Own Border Regiment Museum in Carlisle

I read just one book - Crimea (pb, 2011) [ISBN-13: 978-0141013503] by Orlando Figes, which I reviewed yesterday - to prepare myself for Into the Valley of Death. How many books did you read for both of your series and how many books do you have at home as result of your research?

I’ve now crawled all over the house counting, but it’s still impossible to estimate accurately, since I read so many books online. For the Chevalier Series I have 23 such books saved in ‘My Favourites’ and know I read a great deal more, while in my home I now own 171 actual volumes. For the Crimea I have so far only 16 online books saved, but I already own more than 120.

I should stress that this sounds more impressive than it really is. Some of those ‘books’ are little more than thick pamphlets (like Osprey books on specific uniforms and equipment) while others may be great thick tomes of which I’ve only actually needed to reference 20 pages in the middle (like my history of the British Grenadiers).

That is really impressive! But reading is passive and theoretical. I think beside that it is important to get a feeling for the landscape, how weapons work and more. How do you manage that? Do you travel and do you take lessions (e.g. fencing lessons)?

I’ll take issue with you a little here, in that I don’t think reading books is entirely ‘passive and theoretical’. If those books are primary sources – letters, diaries and memoirs of men who were there – then by reading them I’m effectively interviewing the dead.

But yes, I totally agree about the importance of tackling the practical as well as the theoretical. Re-enactors are wonderfully helpful here, and it is through them that I have learned to make fire with flint and steel, as well as load and fire a matchlock musket, a cannon, an Enfield rifle, and a Colt revolver. I no longer fence these days, but I own a good rapier and still try out the moves of all my fights by myself at home – as a hole in my ceiling constantly reminds me. (A rapier blade can be as much as 4 feet long, a fact a great many novelists seem to forget!)

Learning the matchlock from Kevin Lees of the Jersey militia

Landscape is even more important, and I always travel to the locations described in my books. Cities have changed a great deal, of course, but armed with a 17th century street map of Paris it was still possible to work out (for instance) everything Stefan could have seen when he was following Bouchard after the amende honorable in ‘In the Name of the King’.

Battlefields are even more crucial, especially when there’s topography to consider that wouldn’t show on Google Earth. It was only by visiting the site of La Marfée that I realized the real importance of the high ground occupied by Soissons’ forces in ‘In the Name of the King’, and only by climbing the heights of the Alma that I appreciated what a struggle it must have been for soldiers in full kit and under fire. I think it can also be helpful for readers to see and know these things, so I’ve just added a number of photographs from the Crimea to my website here.

I'm more impressed than before. For me that sounds like you spent years for research. I think that the acribic research gives you a benefit for the next books in your series. Do you have any idea how many books starring either André de Roland or Harry Rider your readers can expect? And whom will we meet next?

I know how many books in each series I’m ready to write – three or even four more for André, and at least five for Ryder – but how many there will actually be will depend on the publisher, and which they think will sell best. The next book (in 2013) is in the Ryder series and takes us further into the Siege of Sevastopol, but after that I wish I knew. Personally I love both heroes and both series and would be heartbroken to abandon either of them for too long – which also feels like a complete betrayal of the readers. At least André is left in a secure place for the moment, but if my publishers want to leave him there much longer I may need to rethink what I do next.

I think the following question is inevitable for someone like you who worked successfully in TV business. Do you have any plans to transform your books into movies? To be honest I could live without that because I find your books highly visual and a firework for my imagination.

I would love any of my books to be turned into film or TV if only because I’d want to watch them myself, but this will all depend on a film company being prepared to take them on. The difficulty with historical is that it’s expensive to make in terms of sets and costumes, so they’re a harder sale than contemporary.
But I’m so glad you find them visual. I know my writing style is heavily influenced by my time in television, and if I can’t see it in my head then I can’t help my reader see it either. You obviously DO see it, and that makes me very happy.

Tomorrow is the publishing date of ‘Into the Valley of Death’ which is your third book. Are you still excited? Is there still a sparkle of uncertainty whether the book will be successful or not?

I think the word you’re after is probably ‘terror’. Most writers are paranoid about such things, and with a fickle market in a time of recession there is always the fear that ‘if this book flops I’ll never be contracted to write another’. But there’s also something more personal involved. I love my characters, I really do – even poor Dennis Woodall, who’s really a terrible human being. What I want more than anything is for people to read this book and CARE – and if they don’t I’ll be desolate. That, of course, is melodramatic and silly, but if you put your heart into a book then it’s your heart you’ll feel has been rejected.

What are your plans for the time after the release Into the Valley of Death? Go on holiday or promote the book or something completely different?

*Sound of hollow laughter*. The publishing world expects a book every year, and when you write big fat historicals as I do then that’s quite a tall order. I’m celebrating the launch, but after that it’s business as usual – up at 06.00 am to get on with writing the next book…

"Louise, thank you so much for taking time to answer my hopefully not too boring questions. Is there anything you would like to tell my readers before I say good-bye for now?"

And thank you too, for such interesting and insightful questions. To your readers I’d like to say most of all – thank you for your interest in books. Any books. If you follow this blog then you care about books and about stories, about the great tradition of entertainment that can transport you into a different world. It’s people like you who keep this tradition alive – and we have never needed it more than now. And if you ever feel like leaping into the stream and writing a book yourself, then I’d beg you to do it. I wanted to write for ages before I finally took the plunge, and I feel now it’s a lot of time wasted. Follow your dream – and better still, WRITE IT. There is nothing so satisfying in the world.

Don't forget to come back tomorrow when my wife and I celebrate our 21st wedding anniversary while you can enjoy my review of Into the Valley of Death.

1 comment:

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Her massive amounts of research and hands-on experience just wore me out!

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