Today I am pleased to be hosting a stop on the YA Shot 2017 blog tour. YA Shot is a one-day annual festival based in the centre of Uxbridge (London). The 2018 festival will take place on Saturday, April 14th, with over 50 authors involved in workshops, panels, ‘in conversation events, and book signing sessions.
For my tour stop I was lucky enough to interview the author of the At Somerton series – Leila Rasheed – on a variety of topics that included her body of work, the early twentieth century, and whether or not there is a correlation between reading historical fiction and writing historical fiction.
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Why did you choose to set Cinders & Sapphires series in England during the early twentieth century?
I can’t take credit for that – it was the publisher, Disney Hyperion’s, idea! I think it’s a great time period, though. So much was changing at the time for people in all social classes, and changing much faster, in terms of daily life, conventions and culture, than it ever had before. The First World War, of course, is a looming presence in hindsight, but there were ‘softer’ changes, such as the evolution of the bicycle, electric light and so on, which changed people’s lives in subtle but powerful ways. If you look at the start of the twentieth century, and the end of it, and compare how the average life in Britain changed, it’s clear that no century has ever seen such radical change – and perhaps never will again.
What about the early twentieth century appealed to you?
So much – the changing society, as women’s rights grew, and old conventions were overturned. A person born in 1900 who was lucky enough to live 100 years, would have seen the world change in unthinkable ways. That makes the time period very powerful and interesting to write about. There was great appeal in the irony, for a modern-day author, of writing in the knowledge this society was on the brink of huge change. And of course, the sheer fun of writing about dresses, parties and luxury that I will never experience myself!
How did you take you interest in the early twentieth century and translate it in a way that appealed to young adults?
I think in order to make history interesting to someone who thinks they have no interest in history, you have to go through the characters: they have to have relatable, engaging emotional narratives at the heart of their dilemmas and concerns. You need to show how historical events impact on real people’s lives. The research has to be worn lightly, and always in the service of the story. Disney Hyperion were also keen to include a romantic gay storyline and a romantic relationship that crossed the boundaries of race. These are very relevant topics for contemporary young adults. I hope I was able to explore these with some success.
Do you like reading historical fiction? Is there a correlation between reading and writing historical fiction?
While I was growing up, I read a lot of historical fiction: I loved Rosemary Sutcliff and Henry Treece in particular. I was also lucky enough to have a children’s version of the Illiad, and children’s versions of the Greek and Roman myths, which inspired me with a love of ancient history. There are some superb historical fiction authors whom I only discovered in adult life, such as Geraldine McCaughrean, Catherine Johnson and Tanya Landman. But nowadays, I mostly love reading actual history: biographies of people, places, objects and ideas. They spark ideas for characters, worlds and situations. For me, that’s the correlation: reading history leads to writing historical fiction. I feel that the ideas and skills of writing are the same across genres –when I write historical fiction I’m driven by the same interests that drive me when I write a contemporary-set novel.
How much research did you have to do about England in the early twentieth century for Cinders & Sapphires series?
Absolutely loads, and it was so much fun. The only downside was that, working to a deadline, the research had to stop at some point. I read memoirs by wealthy women of the period, and accounts of the lives of servants (although there were some memoirs by servants, more often their voices were found in anthologies compiled by others). The life of a servant as portrayed in At Somerton is very much ‘prettied up’: it was a hard, tough life. I would like to write the ‘real story’ one day! I researched ships, fashion and dress code, parties, titling conventions, life for gay people… I can honestly say that the detail of the world described in At Somerton is as accurate as I could possibly make it. That’s not to say there are no mistakes – I’ve no doubt that there are. And some things were out of my control: for example, the make-up worn by the women on the cover of the books is completely anachronistic.
Which character of the upstairs/downstairs relationship did you like exploring more?
I very much enjoyed writing Charlotte. The villains are always the most fun to write, because there’s so much to delve into in their psychology. Why do they act like that? What’s behind it? How shockingly badly behaved can you be?
What is one writing tip you could give to fellow authors about writing historical fiction?
Do your research and then allow yourself to be inspired by history. It’s important to know what you are writing about (and to care if it is right or not), but also to leave space for imagination.
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About Leila Rasheed
Leila is the author of Chips, Beans and Limousines and sequels, published by Usborne and the At Somerton books, published by Hot Key and Disney-Hyperion USA. She also wrote the Witch of Turlingham series for Working Partners as Ellie Boswell. She teaches creative writing at all levels including for the University of Warwick, where she designed and teaches the MA in Writing’s module in Writing for Children and Young People. Previously, she was children’s bookseller for Waterstone’s Brussels. Most recently, she created and runs the Megaphone project, which supports BAME writers as they write their first novel for children or teenagers.
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Are any of you are looking to win a copy of Cinders & Sapphires and Diamonds & Deceit? I have a copy of each to giveaway! If you want to enter head on over to my Twitter for more information on how to enter. This giveaway is now closed. Thank you for those who participated.