Unlike many authors with a historical bent, you don't specialize in one era. Your books are all very different, in both theme and location—pre-WWII Berlin (THE EINSTEIN GIRL), Revolutionary Russia (ZOIA'S GOLD), Communist East Germany (THE VALLEY OF UNKNOWING)—and require a lot of research. Tell me a little bit about what inspires your choices? Are these periods of history that have always interested you? Do you have a wish-list of places/times you'd like to visit with your work?
I don’t deliberately choose a setting, and then look for a story that will work there – at least not consciously. The premise comes first, and in developing that premise I will set the story in whatever times and places work best. That said, modern European history took up most of my studies at university, and I’ve retained an interest in the subject ever since. I guess that, for me, places like Berlin or Dresden or Stockholm are close enough to be familiar, and yet just far enough away to feel challenging and different. But if a good story idea came along that demanded a contemporary non-European setting, then that’s what I would write.
I don’t have a wish-list of places to use as a setting. It would be nice to have that degree of control over my literary destiny! But, as I said, I’m pretty much at the service of the story, and go where it tells me to go.
Your latest novel, THE VALLEY OF UNKNOWING, features protagonist Bruno Krug who embodies both the author's dream come true and worst nightmare. He garnered great fame and success with his debut novel, but has been unable to write anything half as good since. Was it emotionally challenging to put yourself in his shoes? Can you talk a little bit about creating Bruno, and also a bit about the political nature of creative endeavors in Communist East Germany?
The fact that Bruno is a novelist made writing about him more enjoyable for me that it might otherwise have been. I got to exorcise some demons, and to draw on my own experiences as a writer in developing his perspectives and attitudes – even though some of Bruno’s more literary reflections didn’t survive beyond the first draft! Bruno is in part a product of his childhood experiences (his most famous book is called The Orphans of Neustadt), and of German history; but his life as a writer also informs – or misinforms – his view of the world. In fact, Bruno can’t help but see his life as a living fiction; it’s almost the only way he can make any sense of it. (Some readers have pointed out that since The Valley of Unknowing is a novel, Bruno is right on the money, but I think you can be too clever about these things!)
Your father was an industrial chemist and your mother an officer in British Intelligence. What led you to the written word? Did your parents foster this love at an early age?
My parents were supportive of anything and everything I wanted to do; so it was always up to me. I was first drawn to the theatre, and it was in that area where I first tried my hand – very tentatively – at writing. I was at university then. I subsequently turned to prose fiction because working solo was really the only avenue open to me, my studies being over. Once I was on that road, I found it increasingly difficult to get off! Part of me still gets very excited, though, about the performing arts, because I love creative collaborations (at least, when they work!). I have co-written one play, which saw a number of successful fringe productions. I would write more, but I don’t think anyone would pay me to do it!
Every mystery/thriller author would probably kill (excuse the pun) to have a parent who was, for all intents and purposes, a spy. Is this as exciting as we all imagine? Did her work at all prompt the uncovering of secrets that is a common thread in your books?
For much of her career in intelligence, my mother worked alone behind the Iron Curtain without the protection of diplomatic immunity. This was highly unusual, especially for a young woman, and I think it was exciting for her, although not infrequently frightening as well. However, her story only became known to me when I was an adult. I suppose it is possible that years of obvious tact, and a certain guardedness about the past, may have influenced my outlook subliminally, but I’d probably have to go into psychoanalysis to know for sure! Certainly I am drawn to characters who don’t wear their hearts on their sleeves. That much I can say.
Earlier in your career you collaborated with mystery writer Gary Humphreys for a series of books under the name Patrick Lynch which focused on developments medicine and biotechnology. Unlike those forward-looking novels, your more recent work ties to the past. What prompted this change?
I’ve always had an interest in science – another family trait, this time from my father’s side. The six Patrick Lynch novels were all built around nightmares; dramatic and disturbing events made possible by the advent of new biotechnologies or by man’s (witting or unwitting) impact on the natural world. They were carefully researched and quite journalistic books. When I began to focus on my solo work, I suppose I was probably ready for a change of mood and a change of scene. Contemporary Sweden and revolutionary Russia were what came along (in Zoia’s Gold); and that pretty much suited the bill. More historical novels followed from that, although The Valley of Unknowing, being set in the late 1980s, does not strictly qualify as ‘historical’ by the most common definition. I’m quite happy about that, actually.
What's coming next for you?
I have two writing projects for the New Year. I’m going to start drafting a book set in the immediate aftermath of the First World War. The starting point here has been some largely forgotten - but I think extraordinary – aspects of the conflict, and it’s going to be taking me into some dark territory. I may also be collaborating on a big screen adaptation of my previous novel The Einstein Girl, which was optioned last summer. It’s more than four years since I worked on that book, and the prospect of helping craft a screenplay is very enticing.
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QUICKIES WITH PHILIP:
Writing ambience: I work best when it's getting dark and the house is very quiet. There is usually a mug of Earl Grey tea beside the keyboard, going cold.
To outline or not to outline: Outline.
Reading now: THE MIDDLE PARTS OF FORTUNE by Frederic Manning (read more HERE).
Book he wishes he could read again for the first time: Nabokov's LOLITA.
Favorite sentence he’s written: If I chose one, then I'll forever be haunted by the need to write one that's better. So I'll take the fifth on that one.
Book or eReader: Book. Book.
Where he'd time travel: I would like to visit the court of George III in the 1760s and tell his ministers to grant autonomy to the American colonies before there's a revolution. The unity of the English-speaking world might have prevented two world wars, a Holocaust, the rise of Totalitarianism...and America would now have a queen. Everybody wins!
Favorite online resource: Google Maps.
Favorite independent bookstore:: Island Books, Mercer Island, Washington.
His biggest fear: One day finding I have absolutely nothing left to write.
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