It’s been nearly four months since I’ve posted any author interviews here, which is far too long. So I am delighted to welcome Melissa Bailey to the blog.
Melissa was born in Derbyshire in 1971 but grew up in Lancashire. She went to Lincoln College, Oxford, where she did a BA in English Language and Literature. She then moved to London to study law and practised as a media lawyer for a number of years.
Her first novel, The Medici Mirror, was published by Penguin Random House (Arrow) in 2013, with her second, Beyond the Sea, recently published in July.
Hi, Melissa, and welcome. You’re not the first lawyer to become an author, with John Grisham, Meg Gardiner and John Hart immediately springing to mind. What took you down the path of becoming a writer?
I’ve always loved books and reading and from being a small child I was always writing – poems, short stories, things like that. I did an English Literature degree at University but then went on to study law and become a lawyer. However, in the back of my mind there was always a small voice that kept saying ‘you should write that novel you want to write’. That voice kept getting louder and louder until I couldn’t ignore it anymore. At which point, I went part-time at work and put pen to paper in a serious way.
Your first novel, The Medici Mirror, is part murder mystery, part ghost story, but pretty much all love story, with a real-life historical character at the heart – Catherine de Medici. What made you want to write that particular book?
The very first ideas for The Medici Mirror came from reading A Wild Sheep Chase by Haruki Murakami, one of my favourite authors. In that book, the protagonist is holed up alone in a spooky house miles from anywhere and comes across an old blackened mirror. The atmosphere at that point in the novel was incredibly claustrophobic, mysterious and magical. It made me want to create a book of my own with a similar otherworldly feel and gave me the idea of using a darkened mirror. When I then started researching the history of mirrors, the name I kept coming across was Catherine de Medici, who had a vast collection. Not only that, she was a member of the infamous Medici clan – plotters and poisoners – and had a reputation for involvement with magic and the occult. From there the plot really began to take off.
Was writing about a real person more difficult than a fictional one?
Yes and no. Catherine de Medici was a fascinating woman and that made her very easy to write about. She was many sided, contradictory – educated and enlightened, a consummate politician and yet simultaneously deeply superstitious, believing in the power of the stars, seeking solace from soothsayers and astrologers. She developed a fascination with magic in her youth, a fascination which turned ever darker as she grew older and her enemies multiplied – enemies that she didn’t hesitate to despatch. Yet she was also an emotional woman – she adored her husband, King Henri II of France, but throughout their entire married life he had an older, more beautiful mistress, Diane de Poitiers who he was very much in love. And Catherine had to tolerate it. So there was a rich seam of irresistible references that drew me in to Catherine as a character. She was strong, powerful, magical, ruthless, yet also subject to longing, jealousy, resentment and fear – in many respects the perfect combination for my character. However, as I needed the story to be at least in part historically accurate, this created its own difficulties. I thought at one point how great it would be if Catherine could actually kill off Diane – but that was such a deviation from history I thought readers wouldn’t stand for it! So to some extent I was constrained.
That is fascinating. And did you find it difficult to write across the different time periods, from the 1500s through Victorian London to the present day?
I love history and research and so I really enjoyed crafting the different storylines in different eras. I spent a lot of time at the British Library reading not only about Catherine de Medici but about life in nineteenth century London, Victorian graveyards and turn of the century shoe making processes. I kid you not! But as the book moves through three time periods, structurally it was a little complicated and it was often a challenge deciding in which narratives things should be revealed, when to shift between them and how the pieces should best fit. At times it felt like it was never going to coalesce. But finally it came together.
Your second novel, Beyond the Sea, came out on 16 July. What can you tell us about it?
The book grew out of a single image that had taken root in my mind – a woman with white hair, standing on a tiny island, alone, a lighthouse in the near distance behind her. As the novel began to emerge, the woman became Freya, a year after the death of her husband and son, and her journey through grief as she returns to a remote Hebridean island where she and her family lived. The ocean dominates the landscape and Scottish myths of the sea pervade. There’s also a historical thread – the discovery of letters written by a Cromwellian sailor despatched to battle in the Hebrides in 1653, his own sense of isolation and alienation mirroring Freya’s.
The novel really is fantastic – I loved it (and a review will follow next post!). Back on to writing now, though, and a question about process. Are you a plotter, or do you write by the seat of your pants?
A little bit of both! I do lots and lots of research before I put pen to paper on a novel. When I’ve reached saturation point I stop and try to a great extent to forget everything I’ve learnt. Then I start to plot. I don’t plan a novel in a huge amount of detail but I work from a general outline that’s specific enough to keep me on track, in theory at least, but loose enough to allow the story to develop in its own way.
Are you working on anything at the moment?
A third novel. I can’t tell you much about it, but I can tell you that it’s about madness.
Madness? Intriguing. And what’s on your TBR pile?
I’ve just finished reading The A-Z of You and Me by James Hannah which was amazing. Beautifully written, quirky and irreverent, but also incredibly moving. Next up is Haruki Murakami’s Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage. I’m also really looking forward to diving into Claire Fuller’s Our Endless Numbered Days, Us by David Nicholls and You, Me and Other People by Fionnuala Kearney.
I look at Facebook quite a bit, but don’t post much, although I’m a big user of Twitter. Social media is seen as a must for the majority of authors nowadays – what’s your relationship with it?
Generally, I love it as a means of connecting to others – friends, writers, bloggers – although it can be very distracting when you’re trying to focus completely on your writing. During those periods I try to cut off all access to twitter and Facebook and limit myself to looking at it only after I’ve finished for the day. It’s a good theory, but it doesn’t always work!
I can relate to that! Finally do you have a weird or unusual fact about yourself that not many people will know (and that you’re willing to share!)?
I’m not sure whether this is so unusual, and it’s probably clear from my first novel, but I love graveyards. I find them fascinating and could wander around them for hours. When I was researching The Medici Mirror I spent a lot of time at Bunhill Fields in East London, where William Blake is buried, and in the Old St Pancras Churchyard, where Thomas Hardy once worked as a young man overseeing the excavation of graves. But Highgate cemetery is probably my favourite. It’s huge, wild and overgrown, and some of the architecture is amazing.
Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions, Melissa, and good luck with Beyond the Sea, a review of which will appear here in the next day or so. No spoilers, but this is what I posted on Twitter when I finished it.