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23 September 2020

Stephanie Merritt: ‘The novelist begins where the historical record leaves gaps’

S J Parris, author
by Katie Smart Author Interviews, Writing Tips

Our brand new six-week online course, Writing Historical Fiction, led by bestselling novelist S J Parris – aka Stephanie Merritt – is open now for enrolment. Writing as S J Parris, Stephanie is the author of the number one bestselling Giordano Bruno historical thriller series, which centres on the sixteenth-century renegade monk, philosopher and heretic Giordano Bruno. The sixth novel in the series, Execution, was published by HarperCollins earlier this year.

We caught up with Stephanie to talk about writing, researching, and reading historical fiction…

Your extremely popular Giordano Bruno historical thriller series is set in Elizabethan England. What first drew you to this time period?

I’ve been obsessed with Shakespeare since I first visited Stratford as a child, and my interest in him opened up the world of Elizabethan literature and theatre, which was how I first came across a mention of Bruno when I was a student. His story led me to the rich history of espionage and conspiracies that thrived in that period when England’s break with the Catholic Church was still so precarious.

The latest novel in the series Execution is set against the backdrop of one England’s most famous rivalries – between Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots. How do you balance fact with fiction and start to make historical figures your own? When do you know when to stop researching and start writing?

I think the novelist begins with the parts of the story where the historical record raises questions or leaves gaps. If historians have had very different, conflicting ideas about who someone was, that’s interesting to me – which version is closer to the truth? Why did people have such different ideas about him or her? If the documents tell us what someone did, but give no insight into why they did it, I want to understand their motives.

Elizabeth Tudor’s relationship with her cousin Mary Stuart has long been a source of fascination to historians and novelists because England’s fate was bound up with their rivalry, but it also contains so much human drama: jealousy, admiration, conflicted loyalties, family ties. A lot has been written about the two queens, but I wanted to explore what drove the men who plotted in Mary’s name.

I try to read as much as I can to understand the characters and find the detail that will allow me to create a plausible fictional version of them that remains true to what is known, but hopefully fleshes them out and makes them recognisable as real people to the reader.

You write the Giordano Bruno series under the pseudonym S J Parris. What made you decide to use a pen name and is there an interesting origin story behind this particular name?

Originally it was because I wanted to develop a genre series alongside other books, and there’s a long tradition of writers using pen names for crime fiction: Ruth Rendell used her Barbara Vine identity to signal to readers that these were different kinds of novels from her detective series. Julian Barnes, John Banville, and Jonathan Freedland have also written thrillers under a pseudonym.

I wanted to find a name that would be easy to remember, and also have a historical pedigree – one of the earliest English chroniclers was a thirteenth-century monk called Matthew Paris, so for some reason, I thought of him and it stuck. Those are my real initials – I didn’t want to make it too confusing!

Another key element of this series is your gripping thriller plots, filled with political intrigue and murder conspiracies. You have also written a contemporary psychological thriller under your own name – While You Sleep. What are the main differences or challenges between writing a contemporary thriller and a historical thriller?

The contemporary psychological thrillers (I’m currently working on another) are really a way for me to write more about women’s lives. There are plenty of excellent historical novels that foreground women, but having chosen to write about Bruno in my S J Parris series, I found I wanted an outlet to write about things that were closer to my own experience, like motherhood and relationships.

I like the contrast between the kind of stakes at play in Bruno’s world, where nation-states and religions can stand or fall on someone’s betrayal, and the much more intimate jeopardy of the psychological thriller, which is often all about how far we can trust the people closest to us. But both can be a matter of life or death.

Which writers do you admire and what are some of your favourite historical novels?

Obviously, Queen Hilary – I think the Wolf Hall trilogy is probably the greatest English literary achievement to be published in my lifetime (so far, anyway). She has completely reinvented what the historical novel can do.

In terms of historical crime, the gold standard for me has always been Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, but I also love the series of Abir Mukherjee, Ambrose Parry, CJ Sansom, MJ Carter, and Antonia Hodgson. I read my way through all of Peter Ackroyd’s historical fiction in my teens, and Julian Barnes and AS Byatt were also big influences.

Andrew Miller, Iain Pears, Kate Atkinson, Sarah Waters, and Sarah Dunant are writers I often re-read. Among more recent novels, I think Sara Collins, Yaa Gyasi, Laura Shepherd-Robinson, and Maaza Mengiste are terrific.

What does a typical writing day look like for you?

I get up quite early – usually around 6.00 or 6.30am – and try to start writing before the day kicks in, so I’d hope to have two or three hours of uninterrupted work before I check emails or look at social media (that’s the ideal – it doesn’t always happen!) If I can do my word count – usually 1000 words minimum – by midday then I’ll often keep the afternoon for reading and admin. If the writing is going well and I don’t have anything else planned, I might return to it in the afternoon.

I try not to beat myself up if it isn’t going well, though, because sometimes a day of going for a walk and untangling a plot strand is more use than banging out a thousand words that aren’t working and end up being deleted.

We’re excited to have you on board as the leader of our brand-new Writing a Historical Fiction course. What was your favourite part of creating and filming the course?

It’s been great to have the chance to encourage other writers with a passion for history. I enjoyed revisiting some of my favourite historical novels to compile the reading list, but it was really helpful for me to think about how to distil everything I’ve learned in the process of writing ten books, of which six are historical. I tried to think of what advice would have been most useful to me when I started, to see if I could help people to avoid the mistakes I made at the beginning!

Finally, could you share your top three tips for aspiring authors who want to write a historical fiction?

Certainly – 1) Read, 2) Read, and 3) Read. Seriously – I don’t know how anyone can think of becoming a writer if they are not also a voracious reader.

Not just historical novels – read all around your subject and see if you can dig out obscure books on the period. Often you’ll find anecdotes or incidents that might not be well-known and these can be real gems in inspiring fictional episodes or unusual perspectives on events. Looking for a story that hasn’t yet been told, or a different view on familiar events can often be the best starting point for your novel.

Try and write something every day, even if it’s just a small target like 300 words. Over time, those words will build up into a draft you can work with.

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