I’m delighted to welcome Melissa Addey to Virtual Book Club, my interview series in which I give authors the opportunity to pitch their novels to your book club.
Melissa grew up and was home educated on an Italian hill farm. She spent fifteen years in business developing new products and mentoring entrepreneurs before becoming a full-time writer.
She writes historical fiction, mostly inspired by what she calls ‘the footnotes of history’: forgotten stories or part-legends about interesting women and men. She is currently doing a PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Surrey whilst writing two novels: one set in China in the 1700s, one in Morocco in the 1100s. She also gets curious about other topics and has written four non-fiction books: The Storytelling Entrepreneur, Merchandise for Authors, The Happy Commuter and 100 Things to do while Breastfeeding.
Recent highlights include being the 2016 Writer in Residence at the British Library, three months as a guest blogger for Mslexia writing magazine and creating an HG Wells poster trail for the Imagine arts festival in Sutton.
Her first novel, The Fragrant Concubine, is going to be the subject of our discussion today. It was longlisted for both the Mslexia Novel Competition, was Editor’s choice at the Historical Novel Society and is longlisted for their 2017 Indie Award.
Melissa lives in London with her husband and two little children who love books as much as she does.
Q: Melissa, can I start with your love of reading. Confession time: do you have a book on your bedside table that you have never actually read?
I have over thirty books waiting to be read (and that’s just the fiction, never mind the books for my PhD…). I read very fast but not fast enough. As a child I said despairingly to my mother, “I’m never going to be able to read all the books I want to… and people keep writing more of them!” But because of that I don’t care if I’ve not read a classic: I’ll try any book but if I don’t click with it, I’ll set it aside. I won’t struggle through just because I ‘should’ have read it: life’s too short and there are too many wonderful books out there. Also, sometimes a book just doesn’t work for you and then you see it years later and suddenly you can’t put it down. So I never force-read a book.
Q: Are you a member of a book club? Because that can force you outside your comfort zone.
Yes: I’ve been part of the same book club for over ten years. We are five women and we meet once a month, have dinner and discuss a book. We’ve worked our way through books we loved, books we loathed and books that provoked furious debate when we were split down the middle! The great thing is that you get to read books you would never have chosen yourself, so it opens you up to different genres and ideas and stops you sticking to your own little bubble.
Q: What’s the last book that made you cry?
Terry Pratchett’s final Discworld book: The Shepherd’s Crown. I opened the book, read the dedication and starting crying straightaway: it had something very ‘Pratchett’ about it and also told me my favourite character of the series was going to die. I was crying as much for losing Pratchett as the character.
Q: Do you believe that you write the book you want to read?
My books are certainly the books I want to read. I love particular things about history – the food, the clothes, the norms and restrictions of a different society and how to cope with them. So all of those things come out very strongly in my novels.
Q: Today, we’re going to be talking about The Fragrant Concubine. What is it about your novel that makes it particularly suitable for book clubs?
It has two alternating women’s voices with very different reactions and attitudes to the situation they find themselves in and with very different goals in life. I’ve had people tell me they really like Hidligh, who I would probably have classed as the heroine, but also people who felt more aligned to Iparhan, which I was surprised by as she is not as likeable, but she does have a strong story behind her. It’s a period of history that perhaps not many Westerners know about and it’s based on multiple legends, all of which I tried to draw into the story, as well as the known historical facts, so there’s some scope for debate.
It is true that in 1760 the Chinese Emperor Qianlong conquered Turkestan and that a Muslim woman from that region was sent to the Forbidden City as his concubine. It seems she was something of a favourite, being promoted twice and given many gifts. But other stories have grown up around her.
In China they say that her body emitted an irresistible natural fragrance and the Emperor was besotted with her. She was homesick, but he gave her many gifts to remind her of home and at last she fell in love with him and they lived happily ever after.
But in her homeland they say that the woman was named Iparhan and born to a family of rebels. Brought to court by force, she kept daggers hidden in her sleeves to protect her honour. At last she took her own life rather than submit to the Emperor’s desire for her.
I found myself wondering which woman was the real Fragrant Concubine. Which ending was true: the sad one or the happy one?
And debate usually makes for a good book club session!
Q: The Forbidden City seems ripe for picking, but what is it that fascinates you about that setting?
I find it odd that the Tudors get written about all the time but the various dynasties of China and the Forbidden City hardly at all by comparison (in English) as they contain so many of the same elements: monarchs with absolute power, strict protocols for behaviour, a lot of rivalries between both men and women, great personal danger but also the opportunity to rise to giddy heights of power and prestige. Not to mention: exquisite costumes, food and settings. I love it!
Q: Did you know where this book was going to go right from the start?
When I first read the very differing versions of the legend my first thought was ‘this sounds like two completely different women’ – and that’s how my version developed. So it was based on my first instinct. After that there was a lot of plotting and planning and redrafting.
Q: So that’s your reason for switching to different characters’ points of view?
The book is written in alternating chapters. One of the two women (Iparhan) was given her own ‘voice’ in the novel only after I’d written the first draft. She was turning into a villain, as people can sometimes be to us if we don’t understand where they’re coming from. Giving her a voice gave reasons for how she is, even though I still found her a bit scary.
Q: What do you think the advantages of writing in the first person are?
I love first person because it brings you in really close to the character, with all the faults in the narrative that might also imply: we often, as people, misunderstand situations or attribute feelings/ideas/actions to others which are incorrect, because we only see through our own eyes. And I like that in fiction, even if the narrator ends up making errors. It makes them more real to me.
Q: How important is historical accuracy when writing fiction and how faithfully does your novel stick to the written record?
It matters to me that the setting is historically accurate and I take my research very seriously. There’s usually no shortage of dramatic incidents in history to work with! What I do like, though, is finding stories where there are gaps: either something isn’t known or legends have become interwoven with the facts as in The Fragrant Concubine. It gives me space to play. I generally have a list at the end of my novels that gives a quick run-down of what is true and what isn’t. One of my favourite things is trying to build up the character of a known historical person: what would they say or do in a fictional scene? I loved a book called Son of Heaven, Man of the World, by Mark Elliott about the Emperor whom I was writing about: Elliott had some wonderful quotes and events that really gave you insight into the man, rather than the Emperor.
Q: Tell us a little about the major areas you had to research.
Oh, everything! I knew nothing at all about that era. I had to research the clothes, the food, the social customs, things like the hierarchies of concubines (there are different ranks). And I had to do a lot of it three times over because the Emperors of this dynasty were Manchus, ruling over China and had just conquered Xinjiang (a Muslim country, very different to the rest of China). So three different sets of information, some of which overlapped and some which very much didn’t. It took so long, at least six months of very intensive research and then more for the next six months whenever I found gaps in my knowledge. My best moment was going to see an exhibition of imperial robes at the V&A with a friend after I’d been researching for a while: I described each robe and accessory to her before looking at the descriptions and I was correct each time: it gave me a lot of confidence that I was actually doing my research right! It was also very moving for me to see robes that had actually been worn by the emperor about whom I was writing: a reminder that he was a real person. Take a look at my Pinterest boards, I have one for each book and they show you lots of historical details like clothes and settings.
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China, 1760. The Emperor conquers Altishahr, a Muslim country to the west of his empire and summons a local woman from his new dominion to come to the Forbidden City as his concubine.
“A passionate story, richly imagined in the spaces of real history. Melissa Addey meticulously evokes a strange, beautiful and harsh society.” – Emma Darwin, award-winning author of The Mathematics of Love and A Secret Alchemy.
“Melissa Addey has given us a new take on the cherished but controversial legend of the Fragrant Concubine, one that weaves together the many conflicting versions of the story and plausibly embraces how romance might have blossomed between the brilliant Manchu monarch and his fragrant Muslim consort.” – Professor James Millward, author of A Uyghur Muslim in Qianlong’s Court: The Meanings of the Fragrant Concubine
Q: Who designed your book cover and what brief did you give them?
I said to my designer Glendon: the book has to look Chinese but the girl on the cover is not Chinese, she is Muslim and looks perhaps a bit Turkish, which is an awfully tricky combination! I showed him images of how a concubine would have had their hair done and I showed him various covers I liked to get the right script. The story has a dark edge to it so I wanted it quite dark. It took a while but I loved the end result. Streetlight Graphics are wonderful to work with.
Q: Which scene did you find the most challenging to write and why?
The sex scenes! I find most sex scenes not that sexy to read: sex is such a personal thing, how do you write something that works for everyone? There are only really two sex scenes in the book. Originally there were none. My editor said: “You’ve built up this really strong love story and then slammed the bedroom door in our face – you have to let us in.” So I knew I had to write these two. I cleaned my whole house top to bottom. I bleached the sink, which can’t have known what hit it… I procrastinated so badly to avoid writing them. One of my favourite reviews was that the first one was the most erotically charged sex scene the reader had ever read and it made her cringe (it’s supposed to: it’s a horribly tense moment). So maybe bleaching the sink helped.
Q: ‘I’ve always said there are two kinds of writers. There are architects and gardeners. Architects do blueprints before they drive the first nail, they design the entire house, where the pipes are running and how many rooms there are going to be, how high the roof will be. But the gardeners just dig a hole and plant the seed and see what comes up.’ (George R R Martin) Which are you?
Architect… of a garden! I plan the full novel and have a paragraph written for each chapter. It tells me what has to happen within that chapter but then I am free to write whatever comes along. Sometimes new things come, sometimes I stick wholly to what I wrote. It’s a nice mix of planning (I’m an inveterate list maker) and being free.
Q: One of the interesting things about writing historical fiction is that the reader has the benefit of hindsight, while the characters in the book do not. How do you use this to your advantage in The Fragrant Concubine?
Mmmm. I’m not a big fan of fore-shadowing things that characters can’t possibly know are going to happen in the future (like big historical events). I write first-person present tense, so I like to keep my characters in the here and now. But I do like knowing things that are happening, perhaps outside of their immediate daily life but which will have an impact on them. One of the characters in The Fragrant Concubine slowly goes mad (this is based on historical fact) and I liked putting in small glimpses of that as the book progresses, which you would notice, if someone in your life was behaving oddly. The scene when they completely break down is one of my favourites and I wrote it very fast: it felt like being there, watching and it was shocking, after all the correctness and beauty of much of the settings, to have this character fall apart.
Q: Do you think political statements belong in literature? Would you write a novel that was a political tract?
I’m not keen on pushing politics down a reader’s throat. It ought to be clear from what you’re writing, what the issues might be. The women in The Fragrant Concubine came from a part of China that had been recently conquered. It’s still an area of political unrest today because the local people would like their country back. One of the two women in the novel is very much seen as a heroine of these people even today and I tried, in her sections, to show what would have happened to her (and her people) to make her so angry. But if you’re ‘in’ the novel while reading it, that should be pretty clear anyway.
Q: Do you know the ending to your story when you put pen to paper? Have you ever changed the ending after you started to write?
I wrote the last paragraph of The Fragrant Concubine when I wrote the start and I knew that was how it was going to end. It’s closing a circle, returning to something that happens at the beginning, so I wanted it to end that way and also it features a storyteller. I saw an amazing storyteller in the market of Marrakech who has always stuck in my mind because of being perhaps one of the last in a millennia-long line of oral storytellers. It’s a nod to there being so very many different versions of the legend of the Fragrant Concubine. I frequently have the last paragraph written from the very beginning. It gives me the shape of the book.
Q: What are you working on at the moment?
I was supremely lucky in getting funding to do a Creative Writing PhD at the University of Surrey. So I’m working on The Garden of Perfect Brightness, a novel set about forty years before The Fragrant Concubine and featuring two minor characters from that novel in their own story: a Jesuit painter from Italy and the mother of a future Emperor. I’m about to go to Beijing for a research trip and I can’t wait.
Want to find out more about Melissa and her writing?
If you’d like to try her writing, visit www.melissaaddey.com/free to download The Consorts, a novella prequel to The Fragrant Concubine.
Melissa would love to visit your book club if you’re reading The Fragrant Concubine – possibly in person if you’re in London, by Skype if you’re further afield. You can contact her via Melissa@melissaaddey.com
Remember, if you enjoyed this post please share it. If there’s anything else you’d like to ask Melissa please leave a comment.
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Written on January 24, 2017 at 12:06 pm, by Jane Davis
Categories: Author Interviews, Homepage, In-depth, Virtual Book Club | Tags: Author Interviews, behind the book, Bookclub, Books written in first person, Concubine, Forbidden City, Historical Fiction, indie author, legends as a basis for fiction, Melissa Addey, On writing, The Consorts, The Fragrant Concubine, Virtual Book Club, Writing life
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