Continuing our Sunday Series
of taking a look at some fabulous authors!
Hello Melissa, welcome to our Discovering Diamonds Guest Spot. Along with my readers and visitors I love to hear from authors who write wonderful stories. There’s nothing better than curling up with a good book, box of chocs and glass of wine to hand!
Q. Would you like to tell us a little bit about yourself...
A. I was born in London, then lived in Rome for four years as a child. I grew up on an Italian hill farm with my English family till I was nineteen, then came to London to go to university. I loved London, so I stayed ever since and have now been here twenty-five years. I worked in business for fifteen years, mostly developing products and packaging for (supermarket) Sainsbury’s Head Office, then mentoring entrepreneurs as part of a government grants programme to encourage innovation. I wrote a little here and there on the side but when I had kids, I thought it might be my chance to change career. Five years and fourteen books later, I made the right choice, I love being a fulltime author. When I’m not writing, if I have any free time I’m reading, watching movies or travelling. I have two primary-school aged kids so there isn’t a lot of free time!
Q. If you had a choice to live anywhere – where would it be?
A. I quite like where I am, but I did love New Zealand when I visited years ago, it was a really special place, wonderfully kind and friendly people, beautiful landscapes and amazing sense of culture both ancient and modern. If only it were a bit closer to me, I’d be there a lot!
Q. Modern house, old cottage, castle or something else?
A. Ooh castle please! I live in a suburban terraced house, but I do love a castle…
Q. Cat, dog or budgie?
A. We have a cat called Holly. She very soft to stroke and friendly, and a fierce hunter. Unfortunately, she is also kind-hearted and brings me (live!) mice or rats at 2am, convinced she is being generous. I need to train her to bring chocolates instead.
Q. Are you a ‘dining room for dinner’, or a ‘tray on your lap in front of the TV’ person?
A. I’m a ‘family sit at the table and try to have a nice conversation,’ although that often descends into trying to instil basic table manners into small children! On the good sessions it turns into iSpy and imitating cartoon characters from their favourite TV shows. I’m a terrible impressionist.
Q. TV preferences – documentary, drama, comedy, soap or thriller?
A. I love a well-written drama. I’m watching How to Get Away with Murder, a six-season American show, it’s amazing, full of clever twists and very well written with a strong central female character brilliantly played by Viola Davis. I’m also on my fourth re-run of Friends.
Q. What was your first published novel about?
A. The Fragrant Concubine was inspired by popular 18th century Chinese legends that grew up around a real imperial concubine. The legends were so varied that the discrepancies intrigued me. I thought I’d only write one novel, but it turned into a series, one for each of four concubines whose lives overlapped and whose paths through life I found interesting. Their tiny world, enclosed within the Forbidden City, was fascinating.
Q. What was your last novel about?
A. I’ve just published From the Ashes. Set in 1st century Rome, it’s the story of the backstage team of the Colosseum (Flavian Amphitheatre). This first novel introduces Marcus from Pompeii, who is tasked with managing the newly-built Colosseum and one hundred days of inaugural Games, but he loses everything and everyone when Vesuvius erupts. His female scribe Althea has to keep him from despair and keep the inauguration on track. There will eventually be four books, each one with an elemental theme: fire, water, earth and air, as the team and the Colosseum grow and change.
Q. Do you write in one genre or several?
A. Mostly historical fiction but I have written some non-fiction and a children’s picture book. I think trying out other genres benefits all your writing because you learn to communicate in a different way. For now, I’m sticking with historical because I love it but never say never to any genre.
Q. Have you ever considered exploring a totally different genre?
A. I’ve tinkered with crime, it’s such a different genre but I do enjoy reading it. Maybe one day I’ll get the hang of it.
Q. If you could, which two of your characters would you like to invite to spend an afternoon with you?
A. My new character Marcus, who manages the Colosseum. He’s a good man but he’s doing a job we in modern times would shudder at. And the Qianlong Emperor who features in my Chinese series. He seems to have been a creative and quite romantic man, but of course he also held the power of life and death and was seen as almost a god, so that would be fascinating.
Q. Where would you go / what would you do?
A. I’d ask Marcus for a tour of the Colosseum’s hypogeum (the space beneath the arena). It might be scary but I’d be in good hands and we have scanty knowledge of what it was really like so it would be amazing to see it all in operation. I’d ask the Qianlong Emperor to walk with me through the Garden of Perfect Brightness, a vast and exquisite imperial summer retreat. It’s still there but was heavily damaged in the Opium Wars so to see it in its glory days would be magical.
Q. How do you prefer to travel? Plane, boat, car?
A. Car, with music playing, somewhere with really empty roads. I like where planes can take me, but they do make me a little bit nervous. And boats seem so elegant and I love the sea, but I suffer horribly from seasickness!
Q. You are out for a walk. You see a chap sitting on a wall, looking right fed up – but there’s something odd about him... What? And what do you do?
A. He’s transparent when he moves. I’d be scared but I’d want to keep watching him. I’d find a little place where I could hide to sit and watch him and see what happened next.
We have a long-running Radio programme here in the UK called Desert Island Discs on which celebrities talk about their life and select eight of their favourite discs... so changing that slightly...
Q. If you were shipwrecked on a desert island, what eight books would you want to find left in an abandoned hut? (There’s already a Bible, the Quran, and the complete works of Shakespeare)
1.The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck. A masterpiece.
2.A big tome of research related to whatever era I was working on at the time, so I could be getting on with my work.
3.The Writer’s Journey, Christopher Vogler, to improve my craft.
4.Maskerade, Terry Pratchett, featuring my favourite characters from his books, the witches.
5.The Other Boleyn Girl, Philippa Gregory, I found the whole Tudor series by Gregory fascinating, as it overlapped stories but gave you different perspectives on the same events, which influenced my first two series.
6.The Bull from the Sea, Mary Renault, I loved how she made legends feel historically grounded.
7. A massive dictionary, might as well learn some new words!
8. Fingersmith, Sarah Waters: sharp clever writing and perfect relationships between all the characters.
Q. What sort of island would you prefer, and why? (e.g. Desert Island... Hebridian Island...)
A. Isla Nublar, please (the fictional island in Jurassic Park, off the coast of Costa Rica): I know it’s risky, but I just find the idea of seeing real dinosaurs so fascinating, a whole species that we just don’t have any more and to see if they look the way we draw them (Scales? Feathers? Fur? Colours?) or completely different.
Q. And you would be allowed one luxury item – what would you want it to be? (a boat or something to escape on isn’t allowed.)
A. I’d like a beautiful four poster canopy bed to lie on the beach with, but I think maybe I should have a cattle prod to ward off the dinosaurs?!