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Meet the author: Harriet Steel

Harriet Steel is married with two grown-up daughters. She spent her childhood in Wiltshire and went to school in the New Forest. After leaving school, she took ‘A’ Levels at Queen’s College in London, read Law at Cambridge University and qualified as a solicitor; subsequently, she worked in private practice. A long-standing interest in writing became a full-time occupation five years ago. Since then, she has published three novels and a collection of short stories (Dancing and Other Stories). Her novels are all historical.

Becoming Lola is based on the true story of Lola Montez, the nineteenth century’s most notorious adventuress. In Salvation, Harriet goes back in time to the era of Shakespeare to write a more fictional story of adventure, intrigue and espionage and in her most recently published novel, City of Dreams, she returns to the nineteenth century.

First of all, welcome. Can I start by asking how you came to be a writer.

I grew up on a farm in a quiet part of England and books were my companions. As a child, I liked to write poetry. A poem I wrote when I was eight won the school prize but I think that was because I was awarded so many bonus points for being the youngest in the school that I was unbeatable! It was an old-fashioned school and girls didn’t do science but the headmistress insisted we read our way through the English classics. I’m very grateful to her now.

Later on, work and family commitments took up most of my time but I wrote short stories when I had a moment to myself. Some of them were published in The Lady magazine and elsewhere, then my confidence received a boost when in 2004 I was shortlisted for the BBC’s national competition End of Story which formed the basis of a TV series in which I took part. The brief was to complete a short story begun by a well-known writer. I chose Joanne Harris’ story, Dryad. In the end, I came second but a wonderful weekend meeting Joanne at her lovely house in the Yorkshire Dales and taking part in an event at the Dartington Literary Festival really inspired me.

I write largely fact-based fiction, and so I read a lot of biographies as part of my research. It is said that you can be more truthful in novels than you can when writing non-fiction, biographies included. (My favourite description of fiction is that it is ‘made-up truth.’) As someone who writes biographical historical novels, do you agree with this viewpoint?

I think it’s not all that easy to get at the truth in either form. None of us can know for sure what a historical personage thought and felt; even someone’s personal papers and autobiography may be slanted towards what they’d like us to believe rather than absolute truth. For example in the case of Lola Montez, the subject of my biographical novel, Becoming Lola, independent evidence has shown that she frequently massaged facts to her advantage in her writing (although that in itself tells us a lot about her). As a writer of fact-based fiction, I just try to combine faithfulness to well-established facts with interpretations and embellishments that I feel are valid and will bring a story alive for readers – emotional truth if you like – but there’s no denying it’s not a straightforward task. All writers, whether they write non-fiction or fact-based fiction are prey to their own views on the events and characters of the past. Just think of how Hilary Mantel has given us a very different and interesting viewpoint on Thomas Cromwell from the traditional version. Which is the true one? That’s a book in itself.

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On your blog you say that it was seeing a portrait on a visit to Munich – the vitality of her expression and her mesmerising dark blue eyes – that led you to research who she was and to writing Becoming Lola.

Yes, the portrait was in the Nymphenburg which was one of the palaces owned by Ludwig I, King of Bavaria. (He was the grandfather of ‘Mad’ Ludwig, who built the fairy-tale palace at Neuschwanstein.) Ludwig considered himself a connoisseur of beautiful women and he commissioned portraits of the forty-six he rated most highly and displayed them in his Gallery of Beauties at the Nymphenburg. Tastes in beauty change of course, but compared with Lola, the rest of the sitters looked like pretty dolls. It was impossible not to be intrigued by her and the more I read, the more I realised I had found an incomparable subject.

Have there been other occasions when your writing has been influenced or inspired by art?

Art has often been the inspiration for my work. This was particularly the case with my latest novel, City of Dreams. It’s set in Paris in the second half of the nineteenth century and tells the story of Anna, a young Russian girl, who comes to Paris with her new French husband, Emile Daubigny. She’s thrilled to be in the most fashionable city on earth, but when Daubigny turns out to be a rogue and abandons her, she has to cope with a very different life from the one she had looked forward to with such joy.
The names that come to mind in the art of the time are well known – Manet, Renoir, Monet to mention the most famous. Manet’s harsh realism certainly had a place in City of Dreams; Monet’s beautiful pictures were, on the other hand, less influential. His water lilies are a marvellous subject for his magnificent explorations of colour and light, but I suspect their private lives are a little lacking in interest.
It was his contemporary, Renoir, whose work really fired my imagination. His work is sometimes dismissed as, ‘chocolate boxy’ but look closer – there’s so much more to it than that. Renoir’s paintings, with their lush brushwork and limpid, sensuous colours, aren’t just beautiful they’re full of stories too: bursting with life. In La Loge, a glamorous woman beside her beau in their box at the opera looks pensive, as if she’s not really enjoying herself. A girl gazes wistfully out of the picture plane in The Moulin de la Galette, The young turks in The Boating Party show off their muscles while a smooth, dandified young man whispers in his girl’s ear. Who are they all? What are their stories? It was my desire for answers to questions like these that planted the seed of City of Dreams in my mind.

City of Dreams

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“Creating means vandalizing the lives of people, turning them into unwilling and unwitting participants. You steal their desires, their dreams; pocket their flaws, their suffering. You take what does not belong to you. You do this knowingly.” (Extract from And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini.) Harsh or Fair?

I hope that most writers aren’t such vampires as Hosseini believes. Naturally we are inspired to write by our experiences, but I think it’s important to observe a respectful distance from the lives of real people and if it’s not possible, then write something else. The question reminded me of a writer I once met at a conference. She worked as a therapist and was agonising over whether it would be right to use confidences she received in the course of her work in her novel. I’m not sure she liked my answer.

Do you feel under pressure to make your main characters likable?

It’s hard not to want them to be likable. It takes a long time to write a book; I want people to enjoy it and that’s hard if the main character is obnoxious. The only books I personally recall enjoying where the main character was hard to like were Thackeray’s Vanity Fair and Ian McEwan’s Solar. I admit that Lola was a bit of a problem though. She could be selfish and she had a terrible temper when roused. I felt tremendous admiration for her courage and determination and for me, that excused her a lot, but in literature, as in life, she divided opinion. Fortunately most people were fascinated by her story, even if they didn’t always approve of the way she conducted her life. Only one reader told me that he found her so infuriating that he threw the book away in disgust.

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What do you do when you’re not writing? Any hobbies or party tricks?

My indoor activities tend to centre round reading and going to art galleries. I also love walking. We’re very lucky having the beautiful Surrey Hills on our doorstep and many years ago, we bought a timeshare in the Lake District. We go there most years and there’s always something new to discover. Last year it was the eerie shores of Wastwater, a lake which has a forbidding beauty that made me want to rush off and write ghost stories.

What were the key factors that influenced your decision to become an indie author?

I sent my first novel off to several agents and received what I believe are called ‘rave rejections’ in return. It was disappointing but looking at things from the mainstream point of view, it’s costly to establish new authors and when budgets are limited, I appreciate that commercial decisions have to be made. A year or so later, I discovered the peer review site, YouWriteOn and put the opening chapters of City of Dreams on there. To my surprise, they went to the top of the chart. That was when I decided to forget the mainstream for the time being and self publish.

What do you think the greatest advantage of self-publishing is?

I have much greater autonomy as a self-published author. There’s also the advantage of being able to get a book to market faster than would be possible with mainstream publishing. Under the latter system, my books would wait their turn with many others for editing, proofing, cover designing etc. Organising all that myself through freelancers, I can give my baby a head start.

Do you feel you have a stronger connection with your fans because you self-published?

Yes, I do. I’ve found that a lot of people really like the experience of discovering an author who isn’t put forward by mainstream publishers. I understand that as a reader because when I come across another indie author whose work I enjoy, it feels rather special. There’s a sense that contact is very immediate with no barriers in the way.

You use social media to interact with your readership – how important do you think this is to becoming a success as a self-published author?

Social media has an important role to play but I think it needs to be approached with caution. Nothing is calculated to infuriate me more than people constantly tweeting ‘Buy my Book’.

Facebook gives the opportunity for greater depth of personal contact and I find that more satisfying. It’s good for exchanging writing ideas and tips and I very much enjoy getting to know other authors and their work. It’s also great for talking to readers. For that reason, I like blogging too. There’s more scope to explore topics that interest me and, I hope, my readers, as well as publishing interviews with authors in all kinds of fields. The most important thing, of course, is to write a good book and produce it as professionally as possible. You can have a brilliant social media platform but if someone buys one of your books and finds it dull or badly produced they won’t want to take a risk on you again. It makes me very happy when a reader says they enjoyed one of my titles and will look out for others.

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What is your favourite quote about writing?

It’s from Joanne Harris when she was asked what advice she would give to aspiring writers. She answered. ‘Drop the word aspiring and just write.’ That sums up what writing means to me. It’s something I do because I love it and it’s a joy to connect with readers who bring books alive by reading them. Making money out of my books is fun, but secondary. The goal is always to write the best book I can.

You can find our more about Harriet on Facebook, follow her on Twitter @harrietsteel1, or visit her blog.