Denise Tyler interviews author Frances Quinn about historical fiction, living in Brighton and what’s to come
Both The Smallest Man and That Bonesetter Woman are based on real and quite unique figures from history. How restrictive is that when you’re writing historical fiction?
It restricts you a lot. The Civil War, which The Smallest Man is set against, is potentially a really boring subject. It’s full of politics, religion, battles and factions and there are long periods where nothing happened. Trying to get those events into a story is a nightmare: you have to fit those events in, but you want the structure and narrative of a novel. My rule was always that if something was documented as having happened, I couldn’t change that, but if something I wanted to happen might feasibly have happened, and it was a small thing, then I was OK with that. It’s not a history book, it’s a story.
You’re only hearing what Nat’s interested in [Nat Davy, the eponymous Smallest Man] because it’s first person. If you met Nat at the end of his life in the village inn and he started telling you his life story, which he probably would, these are the things he would remember. That meant I could leave a lot of the boring stuff out.
You’ve been described as writing from the heart. Do you agree?
I like books to have a heart; if I’m reading a book and I think that I don’t care about these people, I don’t care if I turn the page and they all fall off a cliff and die, that’s when I know to give up on a book. It might be beautifully written, it might have a great plot, but if I don’t care about the characters then it’s not for me. With Endurance Proudfoot [That Bonesetter Woman] I wanted to explore how we have all been in that situation where we don’t fit; we don’t know the right thing to say or we look wrong. I’m thinking about what will make you care about this person, what makes them vulnerable and what makes us relate to them.
You’re a big ABBA fan and hid three ABBA song titles in The Smallest Man. Has anybody found them all?
I’ll let you into a secret – it turns out I hid six! I tweeted about it and someone pointed out that Arrival could be in there so I did a search for all the ABBA songs and there were actually six. So it seems I’m putting them in there without even thinking about it! I dedicated The Smallest Man to ABBA as I learned a lot from their attitude to writing music. For all the years when there was no ABBA, Benny went to his studio Monday to Friday, nine to five, and made music. He said that on a lot of those days, nothing useful comes and it’s like sitting outside a cave waiting for a dragon to come out. There will be many days when the dragon doesn’t come out, but if you don’t sit there, you’ll miss it when it does. That’s exactly what writing is like.
Why did you decide to move to Brighton and what do you like best about it?
We were in Tunbridge Wells before and we used to come down here all the time for days out and really loved it. I felt that Brighton would have more of a creative community and it does; you can’t throw a stone in Brighton without hitting a writer! Generally, Brighton is a very friendly, open minded place; you could walk down the street with a teapot on your head and no one would say anything. I don’t – but it’s good to know I could if I wanted to!
Where are your favourite places to go in the area?
I like to sit on the beach, summer and winter, watch the waves and eavesdrop on people’s conversations. I really love the undercliff walk to Rottingdean; there’s a café in the middle and a café at the end! I also love the North Laine area and discovering the lovely cafes, restaurants and pubs that are here. We sometimes drive up to Devil’s Dyke and enjoy the view with a picnic. We even did a tour of Shoreham Port on a boat as I’m a bit of a nerd about logistics; they explain all about what they unload where, where the ships have come from. It’s a huge place. They take tonnes of fish guts directly past the private beach at millionaires row every day but Brighton is full of those lovely contradictions.
What period of history can we expect for novel number three?
It’s set in Edwardian times and it involves the Titanic. So I’m jumping forward about a century with every book!