Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The MB Interview: Eliza Graham, author of 'The History Room'

Eliza Graham has been a big favourite amongst our customers since ‘Playing with The Moon’ was published in 2007 (not that long after we opened). That book was published by Macmillan New Writing in June 2007, and was a finalist in 2008’s Book To Talk About award, voted by readers. She has since published Restitution (2008) and Jubilee (2010).

With the publication of her latest book, 'The History Room', we were delighted to chat with Eliza and find out a bit more about her latest book...

MB: Eliza, it’s very exciting for us – and our customers – to have been able to follow you since your debut, and 'The History Room' is now your fourth novel. Can you tell us a bit about it? 

EG: Mark and Nicki, thank you so much for letting me visit the Mostly Books blog!

The story concerns Meredith Cordingley who returns to Letchford, the family home: an apparently idyllic school run by her Czech emigre father. She's escaping a marriage that's collapsed following the return of her wounded soldier husband from Afghanistan. But if she believes Letchford will provide a tranquil refuge, she's in for a shock. Within days of the new school year starting, a disturbing prank is played in the history classroom. Troubled youngsters could be the cause of the trouble, but Meredith starts to suspect that old family secrets are the cause of the disturbances.


What readers seem to love about your writing is the way you weave in themes of how incidents in the past, particularly the war, cast long shadows across time and different generations. Would it be true to say that these themes come to the fore in your latest book? 

Yes, all my books weave in and out of the past and present. I’ve always been fascinated by how events occurring decades ago can continue to affect, for better and for worse, future generations. Most families, I suspect, have wondered about things that happened earlier in the lives of their parents or grandparents. Perhaps someone finds a family group photograph and wonders about the identity of the woman in the back row in the smart hat. Or comes across a wedding certificate suggesting that a 1920s bride might already have been expecting a baby.

Perhaps we’re more open these days, but the generation who came of age during the traumas of the early and mid-twentieth century were often people who were encouraged to ‘move on’ and not dwell on the past. In some cases, this can be wise advice. But many people who are now elderly must have seen some very shocking things in their lives: poverty, appalling injury, violent death. Not necessarily only in wartime, either. A close family member of mine lost a child at birth in the twenties. I don't think she ever really talked about it for the rest of her life. Some of these sad events must, as you say, cast an emotional shadow. 

And it’s not just tragedies that can ripple on through the generations: I believe that periods of intense joy in people’s lives can also affect not only them, but their children and grandchildren. I am very interested in the intersection between an emotional event in the present and something that might have happened fifty years ago to the same character or to someone else close to them. 

In 'The History Room', your characters have very strong emotional feelings towards the main setting, which is both school but also cherished family home. Was this idea suggested by a real place? It would be interesting to know where this idea came from. 

The school in 'The History Room' isn’t based on a particular school but over the last few years I’ve visited a few rather lovely looking schools when my own children have been playing matches or involved in other activities. Some of these schools look more like country clubs than educational establishment. You wonder whether anything bad could ever happen in such idyllic surroundings. But, of course, ‘life’ happens everywhere. And children and teenagers are the same: for better or worse, wherever they are at school. I don’t actually know of any schools that are still run by the founding family, though, but no doubt some still exist. 

In all of your books, war – and its effects on individuals and families – looms in the background. Past books have dealt with incidents from the Second World War but in ‘The History Room’ one of the characters has served in Iraq. Is this something you are interested in personally, or have you had to research whilst writing the book?


We live quite near to Wootton Bassett and I used to see the planes bringing back the dead coming in to land at RAF Lyneham and would feel a shadow falling. Sadly this was a subject all too easy to research, as the newspapers were, at one stage, featuring stories about wounded and dead soldiers on an almost weekly basis.

There were very good articles elsewhere on the web on the subject of artificial limbs and other medical and psychological issues arising from blast injury. I also found some of the material on NHS websites and that of Headley Court, the rehabilitation centre, very helpful indeed. 

Agatha Christie was fond of wartime incidents in the crafting of some of her mysteries – the opportunity for disruption, confusion, etc. ‘The History Room’ – more perhaps than your earlier books - seems to contain a bit of a hint towards the country house mystery (you may not agree with that!). Are you influenced by crime and mystery stories, and if so – what authors have influenced you? 

I love crime and mystery stories and read lots of them. I’ve just, for example, finished Philip Kerr’s latest: PRAGUE FATALE, which includes a country house mystery set in occupied Prague, the suspects including Heydrich, of all people. The book I’m writing at the moment is perhaps also influenced by that ‘crucible’ sense: characters pushed together within a particular space, where they are placed under a degree of stress, causing them to react in interesting ways.

I also like Robert Goddard’s books and am fascinated at how he does his weaving between past and present. Like everyone else, it seems, I have now read quite a bit of Scandinavian crime fiction and watched it on television. I’m currently rereading THE DARKEST ROOM, a novel by Swedish author Johan Theorin. 

As you write a book, is it the mystery that you start with, or do you have a setting, or characters in mind? I can imagine that this is a chicken and egg question, but what would you say were the main drivers when you write? 

I often find it’s a film-like image running through my mind: or a strong emotion, perhaps loss or a link with the past when I am in a particular landscape or by an old building. I have an urge to explore what is making me feel like this. When I worked in London I was once based in a particular part of the New Oxford Street/ Holborn area that made me feel unsettled every time I walked out for a sandwich.

Reading Peter Ackroyd’s book about London taught me that there’d once been a gallows near the office, and that the building was on the site of a maze of streets infamous for violence and crime. Before that it had been a monastic hospital. So much suffering: and, for me, at least, a sense of unsettledness seemed to live on. I have written about that part of London and its history in two books of mine that never made it to publication but which were very important in helping me find a writer’s voice.


Your previous book Jubilee – another first-rate mystery story set across the generations – was very influenced by where you live, the area around White Horse Hill, near the Ridgeway and the (old Berkshire) Downs. In fact, the countryside was almost a character in that novel. You live in a particularly beautiful part of the country, and I wondered whether its influence has crept into your latest book? 

It is lovely where we live and there are some mentions of the local countryside in 'The History Room' but it doesn’t figure quite as much. In that respect, it is more contained and perhaps claustrophobic in feeling. 

Having listened to you speak at events we have done in the shop, I know how important the ‘Books To Talk About’ awards were back in 2008. I know we have writers who read the blog, and I wonder if you could tell us a little of how your writing journey has developed since then. How has the publishing world changed in five years, and how have you changed as a writer? 

Books To Talk About was a real boost to my confidence when I was just starting out. I was very lucky.

The changes in the last five years have occurred so speedily that I think everyone is still walking around a little dazed. We have gone from very few authors being published in e-format to a vast amount number doing this: off their own backs, taking full charge of all aspects of the process. It changes the relationship for everyone. Writers used to have to wait for years to be validated by a gate-keeper: usually an agent, sometimes a publisher. It could be infuriating to have to go through the laborious process. For some people that has been wonderful. For writers in my genre, I’m not so sure. We don’t have the same online fan forums who might turn a book viral. It can be very hard to differentiate yourself on a very crowded e-bookshelf.

Print sales are still the most important for me, though I have seen increased e-book sales over the last year. I am still more than happy to be traditonally published, with people behind me who understand sales and marketing and who are responsible for editing, copy-editing and proof-reading my books.

On the other hand, I’ve now finished my last book on contract for my publisher, Pan Macmillan, so who knows what will happen next. 

Finally, we always have five quick questions that we ask children’s author when we talk to them – so we’ve adapted a few of them right at the end of this interview!


1.    What are you working on at the moment? 

I am writing something provisionally called FAIRFLEET. It’s about another old house: this time one to which a group of young Jewish Kindertransport boys travel in the 1930s. One of the boys has a guilty secret. Seventy years later, a troubled woman comes to the house to nurse him on his deathbed. Her past and his are bound together in a way that emerges as they get to know one another. 

2.    What is the best writing tip you’ve ever been given? 

Read your work aloud! 

3.    What’s the best thing and the worst thing about being a writer? 

It can be lonely, particularly during the winter. And it can take a long time to be paid — hopeless if you’re trying to budget. 

4.    Do you have a writer’s survival kit, eg a place, thing of snack essential before you can start work? 

I keep the cocoa industry afloat! To make it slightly healthier, I do also take a brisk walk every afternoon with our dog. Walking is good for making ideas flow again. 

5.    What was your biggest breakthrough? 

Being taken up by Macmillan New Writers with Playing with the Moon after years of not getting anywhere! 

Thanks to Eliza for talking to us - and we have signed copies of 'The History Room' at Mostly Books. Just email us if you would like a signed copy put aside...

2 comments:

  1. Really enjoyed Eliza's last two books, and really thought that I had guessed the end of Jubilee - I was smug and wrong.

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  2. Yep, the ending of Jubilee went in a totally different direction than what I thought as well!

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